In September 2022, Hurricane Fiona caused another island-wide blackout in Puerto Rico. The storm dropped 30 inches of rain, while producing flooding and mudslides. While nearly a million customers lacked power in the immediate aftermath and thousands were still without power in mid-October, restoration is moving faster than after Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in September 2017.
Although more work is needed to improve the island’s grid and maintain stable operation, many residents, essential services and businesses were able to keep the lights on during Fiona, thanks to solar panels and battery systems, according to a September article in Time.
Nearly 42,000 rooftop solar systems were enrolled in the island’s net-metering program as of January 2022, more than eight times the amount a year before Hurricane Maria hit the island, according to Casa Pueblo and utility data. Thousands of additional systems are operating but uncounted since they are not connected to the grid, according to an article in Grist.
Five years post-Hurricane Maria
Hurricane Maria destroyed 80% of the fragile electric grid and cut power to 3.4 million people—the entire population of the island, according to a FEMA press release in October 2017. Five years later, deployment of recovery funds has been delayed, the grid is still not reliable and the island continues to experience blackouts.
FEMA allocated $3.2 billion to help restore power to the island; however, mismanagement, corruption and difficult terrain slowed recovery efforts, according to the Grist article. Puerto Rico’s government has only completed 21% of over 5,500 post-hurricane projects, according to a September 2022 article in The Los Angeles Times.
In 2020, FEMA allocated $9.5 billion to the island’s bankrupt public utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), according to a September 2022 article in Scientific American. Puerto Rican authorities made a 15-year deal to transfer the publicly-operated transmission and distribution system to LUMA Energy, a private consortium of U.S. and Canadian companies. In June 2022, PREPA and LUMA received $12.8 billion to continue improving the grid, Scientific American reported. LUMA now operates the grid and manages reconstruction, while PREPA continues to produce and procure electricity, according to Grist.
Thousands have protested this privatization, according to a July 2022 report from Reuters. Many complain that LUMA has not stopped regular power outages and they pay exorbitant electric bills—almost twice as much compared to electricity costs that U.S. mainland residents pay, according to a June 2022 article in the Journal of Public & International Affairs.
A community-led solar revolution
The transition to a more resilient, sustainable energy system has fallen to residents, local nonprofits and businesses.
Solar Responders equips first responder stations with solar-plus-storage systems. So far, the organization has installed systems in 19 fire stations, with plans to expand.
Casa Pueblo, recognized by the Goldman Prize in 2002, leads sustainable development programs on the island. After Maria, the organization installed solar systems for over 100 homes and 30 businesses on the island. Now, in the wake of Fiona, Casa Pueblo has been sharing on social media how well their solar-power microgrids weathered the hurricane and how solar panels help families keep their power on—like this resident who was able to power his life-saving dialysis machine.
LUMA has connected several residential solar installations and estimates that, in a few years, it will triple the amount of utility-scale generation on the island, shared Mario Hurtado, LUMA’s chief regulatory officer, in Scientific American. But many cannot afford to install solar without grant assistance, which makes it challenging for residents and nonprofits to transition an entire island’s electric grid on their own, warned Grist.
Puerto Rico is a great location for renewable energy, with the potential to produce four to five times the amount of solar than is needed to meet current residential demand, according to a 2020 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Rooftop solar can sufficiently power local communities and reduce the overall amount of energy that needs to be transmitted and distributed, according to NREL’s “Puerto Rico Grid Resilience and Transitions to 100% Renewable Energy Study,” also called PR100.
Investing in solar energy can help Puerto Rico reach its goal of producing 40% of its energy from renewables by 2025, set out in the 2019 Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act.
The island ranks among the top 10 locations in the United States with the highest home solar installation per capita, according to Time. Over 2,800 solar projects are installed monthly, according to a May 2022 Puerto Rico Energy Bureau report submitted by LUMA.
Divest in fossil fuels, invest in renewables
While PREPA claims to be advancing the island’s clean energy goals, it continues to invest in fossil fuels. Restoration work has focused on repairing and extending the life of the existing, outdated grid, even though it is dependent on fossil fuels, has never provided reliable energy and was neglected for decades, Grist reported. PREPA’s proposed 10-year infrastructure plan calls for new methane gas-fired power plants to be built across the island.
Ruth Santiago, a climate advocate and attorney with environmental law group Comite Dialogo Ambiental Inc. and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, filed a brief in 2020 arguing against PREPA’s 10-year plan. The community would be better off transitioning directly to renewable energy, Santiago wrote in an article for her alma mater Lehigh University.
Policymakers and researchers on the island and the U.S. mainland are pushing federal recovery money to be invested in renewable energy like on-site solar, storage systems and microgrids.
“It is widely accepted that the surest path to lowering rates and stabilizing the finances of the electrical system is to end Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels,” wrote Tom Sanzillo, director of financial analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), in a September 2022 IEEFA report. “It is past time for the federal government and the island government to stand up to fossil fuel and bondholder interests and put the billions of dollars of grid reconstruction money towards rebuilding a resilient, decentralized, renewable energy-based grid.”
To make renewable energy more accessible, grants or federal tax credits for low-income families should be implemented and the $13 billion post-Maria federal recovery aid should be allocated to create distributed solar energy, instead of centralized natural gas and diesel plants, Sanzillo said in the Time article.
Generating renewable power at or near its point of use and storing it in batteries makes energy more localized, instead of centralizing it in an outdated, inefficient, expensive transmission system of large power plants scattered around the island, according to a Grist Fix opinion piece written by Santiago.
“This way, the entire system isn’t brought down when one part of it is hit by a hurricane,” she wrote.