Puerto Rico Climate Lessons

  • Ruth Santiago Environmental and Community Lawyer
    White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria took down 80% of Puerto Rico’s centralized grid, resulting in a complete power outage that extended for nearly a year in some areas. Most communities, businesses, schools, and other essential institutions were shut down for months. Living without electric service can make everyday tasks like cooking, storing food, washing up, shopping, banking, and getting from place to place difficult. It can be life-threatening for people who depend on respirators, asthma therapy, dialysis treatment, or refrigerated medication. In many places in Puerto Rico, power outages also cut off access to potable water systems and sewage treatment, which run on electric pumps. The official estimate is that approximately 3,000 people perished in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and many of those deaths were attributable to the extended power outage.

Over 100,000 people left Puerto Rico and have not returned. Those of us who remained have developed a heightened interest in energy issues and renewable generation, especially rooftop solar and battery energy storage systems and other alternatives to fossil-fired generation plants that depend on centralized transmission and distribution lines, poles, towers, transformers, substations, and other systems known as the grid. As we mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a cursory view of the electric system shows this vision largely unfulfilled.

Puerto Rico’s centralized grid depends on big gas and oil-fueled plants in southern Puerto Rico carrying electricity through the central mountain range to the north, especially the San Juan metropolitan area. After the hurricane, repair of the collapsed system was held up amid scandals, as companies like Whitefish and Cobra profited handsomely from dubious work. The new grid operator, LUMA Energy, is lobbying to rebuild the existing centralized, fossil-enabling energy grid with a historic amount of federal funds. Another company built a liquefied “natural” gas terminal to import highly volatile methane gas, which is frequently inoperable and was constructed without the necessary authorization from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Applied Energy Systems (AES) coal-fired power plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico continues to spew toxins and contaminate the South Coast Aquifer. Meanwhile, the Punta Lima Wind Farm was blown away by the hurricane, as was a utility-scale, land-based solar array near where the storm made landfall.

Worst of all, the government of Puerto Rico and the local Energy Bureau, while paying lip service to renewable energy, continue to push the business-as-usual reconstruction of the 20th century electric system that has failed after each hurricane, and sometimes during lesser storms too. They are asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a whopping $9.6 billion to rebuild the centralized grid and add new methane gas-fired plants, but not one penny for renewables.

But there is another path. Civil society platforms composed of community, environmental, labor and professional organizations, as well as academics and religious congregations, are calling on the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to invest the historic amount of FEMA funds allocated for the electric system to provide life-saving distributed renewable energy, primarily on-site or rooftop solar and battery energy storage systems to enable Puerto Rico residents, businesses and institutions universal to access resilient power, as set out in the We Want Sun/Queremos Sol proposal.

While various community groups and philanthropic organizations have carried out a few rooftop solar and battery energy storage projects throughout Puerto Rico, the pace and scale of these alternatives is dwarfed by the proposed rollout of new methane gas plants and the associated centralized grid. Higher-income individuals are beginning to use rooftop solar and storage installations, but with Puerto Rico’s poverty rate of close to 44 percent, most people in the country cannot access the life-saving resiliency that these systems can provide. In Puerto Rico and in other hurricane-prone places like the Gulf Coast and beyond, the investment of FEMA funds in distributed renewables and batteries is a matter of equity and environmental and climate justice.

Using FEMA funds to rebuild the Puerto Rico grid would be a terrible waste of taxpayer money. The Biden-Harris administration has a unique opportunity to make good on its commitment to tackle the climate crisis and center environmental justice by showcasing Puerto Rico as an example of what recovery funds can do to transform the electric system.

Community-based energy resilience in the Jobos Bay communities of southeastern Puerto RicoIn the absence of government action to provide universal access to resilient renewable energy, Jobos Bay communities in the municipalities of Salinas and Guayama in southeastern Puerto Rico have taken their own steps forward. For decades, community groups have advocated for sustainable electricity and clean water in these communities, which are besieged by the two most contaminating power plants in Puerto Rico. Comité Dialogo Ambiental, Inc. (Dialogo) and other local community groups developed rooftop solar pilot projects under an umbrella organization called Iniciativa de Ecodesarrollo de Bahia de Jobos, Inc. (IDEBAJO). Even before Hurricane Maria, the community-based rooftop solar initiative, known as Coqui Solar, helped community members become energy literate, learn about the viable and appropriate energy alternatives, organize training programs, and start to plan implementation.

Building on the Coqui Solar experience, in 2020 Dialogo and IDEBAJO partnered with residents of the Jobos communities closest to the AES coal-fired power plant in Guayama to implement a campaign centered on sustainable, community-based energy alternatives. The Campaña por Agua, Aire y Energia Limpia (Campaign for Clean Water, Air and Energy) focuses on energy literacy and democracy, installation and maintenance of small solar kits (under two kilowatts, coupled with four batteries), the production of a documentary, community screenings and discussions, organizational meetings, youth environmental education and activities, water sampling, and citizen science for ongoing efforts to shut down the AES coal-fired plant and transform the local community’s electric system to onsite/rooftop solar.

Awareness of the adverse impacts and pollution of coal ash waste to water supplies, water bodies, and air quality has helped communities make informed demands for water monitoring, waste removal, water clean-up, and closure of the plant. The project has made substantial progress toward its goals, including installing more than 25 solar kits with the participation of community members, volunteers, engineers, an architect, and other technical personnel. The kits were distributed to select residents through a community planning process that prioritized two criteria: vulnerability or need (such as cancer and other health conditions), and participation and commitment to community wellbeing and the struggle against the AES coal plant. The solar kits can withstand hurricane force winds and will help these households weather power outages while allowing for faster recovery after disasters. AES announced its intention to stop burning coal prior to the end of the contract period.

The power outage in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria was the second largest in history. Nicole Goodkind, “Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria Power Outage Is Now the World’s Second Largest Blackout,” Newsweek, April 22, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/puerto-rico-power-hurricane-maria-blackout-882549 With climate change bringing more frequent and intense hurricanes, storms, wildfires, and other climatic events, many areas around the world are facing similar issues with electricity transmission and distribution systems. Communities from the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, and the east and west coasts of the United States are increasingly contending with power outages provoked by downed infrastructure, and electric power lines are sometimes igniting or aggravating wildfires in California. Hurricane Ida tore down the transmission and delivery system in New Orleans, while Hurricane Nicholas wreaked havoc on the electric grid in Texas.

In spite of lofty renewable energy goals and zero emissions targets, government agencies in the grips of powerful utility companies frequently fail to follow through on the energy transformation agenda. Civil society groups are increasingly holding rogue utilities (like Entergy in Louisiana) to account, becoming “energy literate,” and putting forth proposals for energy system transformation. The key lesson of the Jobos Bay experience is that community groups can and must become energy literate and participate in the electric system as prosumers, not mere passive and powerless consumers. The community organizing, planning, and learning process and successful deployment of small solar kits present solutions with broader applicability in other scenarios where essential energy service is at risk, including other places frequently impacted by hurricanes.

  • Ruth Santiago Environmental and Community Lawyer
    White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council