Puerto Rico seeks the clean energy revolution. There are power outages.

0

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, a clear imperative was to rebuild the power grid, make it more resilient, and also focus on clean energy sources that could help fight climate change.

Five years later, only 3% of electricity in the United States is produced by renewable sources. Ongoing blackouts are prompting some to leave the island altogether.

Why we wrote this

For Puerto Ricans, Hurricane Maria upended the power grid at a time when the territory’s government was already mired in bankruptcy. Today, clean energy ambition is still associated with persistent power outages.

“People say, ‘I pay more for my electricity bill. We have more outages than ever. Why bother?’ says Ramón Luis Nieves, a former member of the Puerto Rico Senate in the San Juan area.

The reality, however, is not hopeless. Many individuals install solar panels themselves. A post-Maria law provides for a rapid expansion of clean energy supplies and the breaking of a monopoly in the electricity market. The government recently emerged from a five-year period of bankruptcy, with the US government also providing aid. These are signs of the kind of ingenuity and collaboration that could help both fix the grid and sustain the island’s society and economy.

“It’s really hard to believe it’s going to get any better if you don’t see, hear or read about the infrastructure improvements,” says San Juan resident Olga Otero. “If it doesn’t improve, it doesn’t change.”

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Within seconds, on a Wednesday evening in early April, more than a million Puerto Ricans were left without power. Marilu Mayorga and her longtime partner Bill Greenberg were among them.

“The street is total darkness,” Ms Mayorga said as she walked out of their home. She could smell the gasoline fumes coming from her neighbor’s generator. She could hear its engine purring. “I see police lights outside. What is happening? It’s so dark here.

It was dark in many other communities as well. One of the four main power stations on the island had suffered a circuit breaker failure, which ignited. For five days, many Puerto Ricans were without power. Public schools and government agencies are temporarily closed.

Why we wrote this

For Puerto Ricans, Hurricane Maria upended the power grid at a time when the territory’s government was already mired in bankruptcy. Today, clean energy ambition is still associated with persistent power outages.

Nearly five years after Hurricane Maria devastated this territory of the United States – killing nearly 3,000 people and causing the longest blackouts in US history – Puerto Rico’s power grid is far to be revived. Instead, its problems symbolize deep challenges on the island, as climate change requires both a greener power supply and resilience in the face of increasingly powerful storms.

Maria’s devastation was an inevitable call to action. The laborious monitoring raises questions about governance and tests the patience of residents while prompting some to leave the island altogether. Puerto Rico’s population of 3.2 million is about 11% lower than in 2010.

“There is a whole generation here, after Maria, who left the island. They couldn’t handle the dysfunction any longer, says Ramón Luis Nieves, a former member of the Puerto Rico Senate in the San Juan area. “People say, ‘I pay more for my electricity bill. We have more outages than ever. Why bother?'”

The reality here, however, is not hopeless. Along with the presence of combustion generators, a growing number of residents are installing their own solar panels. A post-Maria law provides for rapid expansion of clean energy supplies. And the government recently emerged from a five-year period of bankruptcy seeking a fresh start, with the US government also pledging $12 billion earlier this year to bring Puerto Rico’s grid to a state of reliability.

These are all signs of the kind of ingenuity and collaboration that could ultimately not only fix the grid, but also sustain the island’s society and economy.

Yet the obstacles are formidable.

Many residents say power cuts are frequent even though their electricity bills have sometimes tripled.

“It’s really hard to believe it’s going to get any better if you don’t see, hear or read about the infrastructure improvements,” says San Juan resident Olga Otero. “If it doesn’t improve, it doesn’t change.”

Traffic lights are out of order on a street in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on April 7, 2022 – during a power outage that also caused the US territory to cancel classes and close government offices. These power outages are one of the reasons some Puerto Ricans leave the island altogether.

When Hurricane Maria hit the territory in September 2017, residents of populated areas of the island were without power for months; for others, like those who live in its mountains, up to a year.

Puerto Rico’s Green New Deal

In 2019, lawmakers approved a law known as Law 17 that would end the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s monopoly on power distribution. Among the intentions of the landmark law was the elimination of coal use by PREPA by 2028 and the provision of 40% of electricity from renewable sources by 2025, rising to 100% by 2050. .

“It’s like Puerto Rico’s ‘Green New Deal’,” says Javier Rúa-Jovet, solar advocate, global energy lawyer and former president of Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Council.

But like many well-meaning clean energy efforts in the Americas, Act 17’s ambitions have so far fallen short. Local residents and experts see it as a mix of complicating factors, ranging from bureaucratic slowness to a long-standing failure to open the island’s electricity market to greater competition, including in the field of clean energy. In March, PREPA announced that the initial target of 40% renewable energy by 2025 would not be achieved.

Debt is another obstacle. Even with the territory’s comprehensive debt restructuring, PREPA remains saddled with staggering $9 billion in liabilities, to be repaid through higher utility rates over the next 47 years. In March, amid rising global energy prices, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi canceled the debt repayment plan, saying it was not feasible. Arty Straehla, managing director of PREPA creditor Mammoth Energy, chastised the decision to end the debt restructuring as “another example of Puerto Rico and PREPA continuing their resistance to paying their bills.”

Utility workers work to restore power in Las Carolinas, Puerto Rico, March 12, 2018. This neighborhood outside Caguas still had no power six months after Hurricane Maria hit the ‘Isle. A law passed in 2019 calls for the territory’s electricity system to become 100% renewable by 2050, but progress toward a cleaner, more resilient power supply has been slow.

Currently, three years after the start of Law 17, Puerto Rico generates only 3% of its electricity from renewable energy, with the rest coming from fossil fuels, such as oil (49%), natural gas (29%) and coal (19%), according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Clean energy advocates say this stands in stark contrast to Puerto Rico’s potential for renewable energy — everything from large-scale generation to community micro-grids to individual rooftop solar power. Recent research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that Puerto Rico receives enough sunlight to meet its residential electricity needs at least four times.

Small steps forward

For the territory to achieve its hoped-for energy revolution, it will take a massive organized effort – but it can also be down to small actions by people like Carla Giovonnani.

“You have to love your island to stay here and try to move it forward,” says the San Juan resident.

Ms. Giovonnani had solar panels installed on her modest home in a working-class neighborhood earlier this year. She’s been off the grid since March.

She realizes that solar power is a luxury that many Puerto Ricans, like her father, do not have access to. In his father’s business, where he sells school uniforms, when there is a power outage, he closes shop.

“He can’t have customers in his store” because it’s too hot, says Ms. Giovonnani. If he doesn’t start the generator during a blackout, “he can’t work.”

Así es la vida in Puerto Rico. That’s life in Puerto Rico, some locals say.

Ms. Otero, also in San Juan, says she panics whenever her phone drops below 50% charge.

“As a country we have a kind of PTSD because I never let my phone run out of battery,” Ms Otero says. “Because you never know when you’ll be without a power source. You might have emergencies or something, and then you’re without a reliable means of communication.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one,” adds Ms. Otero.

Despite Puerto Rico’s slow energy recovery, hope remains on the horizon – in solar.

Mr. Rúa-Jovet notes the change in recent years in how Puerto Ricans view solar power as an answer to power outages. Before Maria struck, less than 1% of the energy used on the island came from distributed solar power. This amount, although still modest, has almost tripled in a few years.

“When events like the blackouts of yesterday and today occur, it multiplies,” says Rúa-Jovet.

In the small town of Maricao, which has a population of 5,000, residents have recently started moving to build their own microgrid. The mountain community received this opportunity through the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Of the 12 municipalities that applied for the network in Puerto Rico, Maricao was deemed the most needed.

While such community solutions may become increasingly common, many cities and neighborhoods across the island are, for now, waiting for a solution – sometimes, in the dark.

Ms Mayorga and Mr Greenberg’s electricity in Dorado went out for three days after the Costa Sur power station went out. In such events, they follow a routine, with Mr. Greenberg throwing an extension cord from the balcony of their house, then passing it to the nearby generator. Their neighbor generously lends them his power to make up for the smell of the engine.

Meanwhile, the outage disrupts their remote work lives. Dysfunction began to weigh on them, as it did for many in Puerto Rico. The couple do not know what will come next or if they will stay.

“It’s not sustainable,” says Ms. Mayorga.


Source link

Share.

About Author

Comments are closed.