Puerto Rico and the fight for Energy Democracy
On September 18, 2022, Hurricane Fiona hit and flooded Puerto Rico, leaving millions without power. It has been three weeks and more than 30,000 people still find themselves without power2. Hurricane Fiona comes just five years after Hurricane Maria caused a blackout throughout the island, lasting for 11 months, making it the largest blackout in U.S. history3. Even before Hurricane Fiona hit the island, residents of Puerto Rico have been outspoken about their frustration over Puerto Rico’s privatized electric grid, its power outages, rise in energy costs, and their fear of an island-wide blackout happening again. This blog provides an analysis of the current condition of Puerto Rico and the push for a renewable future.
Federal Response to Hurricane Fiona
President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico freeing up federal resources including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for emergency response and disaster relief efforts. Now residents in all 78 municipalities who suffered damage to their homes or personal property may register for disaster assistance with FEMA, an increase from allocated for some municipalities. On September 28th, the Biden Administration released a factsheet on the ways the administration is supporting Hurricane Fiona response efforts in Puerto Rico. In addition to emergency assistance funds, the factsheet lists the ways they are expediting power restoration to impacted communities, such as:
- “The Department of Homeland Security approved a temporary and targeted Jones Act waiver allowing 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel to be discharged to Puerto Rico by non-U.S. flagged ships.”
- “Federal responders work to identify and assess requirements for generators to provide temporary backup power to critical facilities and install generators where they are needed. There are now more than 200 generators on the island available to support key facilities across the island.”
The factsheet also includes how the bipartisan Infrastructure Law also makes significant investments to increase the resilience of Puerto Rico’s grid. According to the factsheet, the Department of Energy’s Preventing Outages and Enhancing the Resilience of the Electric Grid formula grant program allocates “$3.7 million to Puerto Rico in 2022 to improve the resilience of the electric grid against disruptive events”. The Department’s State Energy Program also allocates “$4.7 million to Puerto Rico to enhance energy security, advance state-led clean energy initiatives, and increase energy affordability”. There was an additional $38 million was allocated to Puerto Rico this year for weatherization under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Even with federal funds, many residents and activists of Puerto Rico are skeptical about how effective federal funding will be. Following Hurricane Irma and Maria, in 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set aside billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Puerto Rico’s power grid, however those federal funds trickled out slowly4. And Puerto Rico’s privatized electric grid has caused public outrage over the spike in outages and low-maintenance of the grid even before Hurricane Fiona.
Puerto Rico’s Privatized Electric Grid
In addition to natural disasters, Puerto Rico's electric power sector has suffered from decades of mismanagement and underinvestment. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), Puerto Rico’s public power utility, was already bankrupt when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. In June 2020, PREPA chose LUMA Energy, a group of U.S. and Canadian private companies, to operate its electricity transmission and distribution system6.
LUMA has faced criticism for poor performance. Under LUMA, residents continued to experience power outages and blackouts sometimes lasting up to five days, and an increase in electricity prices. Residents in Puerto Rico experience a high energy burden. Electricity rates are higher than the average household in the mainland U.S., with ratepayers paying eight percent of their income for electricity7. This year, seven electricity rate increases requested by LUMA have been approved by Puerto Rico’s Energy Bureau8, on the island where more than 43% of Puerto Rico’s residents live below the poverty line, more than three times the U.S. average9. For these reasons, many have taken to the streets in protest since last year, demanding the island cancel its contract with LUMA. Even Governor Pedro Pierluisi has publicly criticized and denounced Luma Energy after public outrage over the spike in outages earlier this year10.
A Shift to Renewable Energy
There is interest to move Puerto Rico toward solar power and away from its reliance on fossil-fuel energy. Currently, fossil fuels provide about 97% of Puerto Rico's electricity. Renewables accounted for about 3% of the island's electricity generation12. Puerto Rico imports all of its petroleum, and the transportation and electric power sectors use about 90% of it. Puerto Rico consumes about 27 times more energy than it produces and its energy consumption per capita is about one-third of that in the 50 U.S. states13.
According to the 2019 Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act (17-2019), PREPA is required to obtain 40% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025, 6% by 2040 and 100% by 2050. The law also requires it to phase out coal-fired generation by 2028.
Residents of Puerto Rico have outspokenly shared their need for energy democracy. Specifically, a resilient, renewable electricity system with equitably shared benefits. In the face of devastating hurricanes, people are searching for alternatives to avoid going months without electricity and clean water. Solar is Puerto Rico's fastest growing source of renewable generation, increasing from 0.3% of total generation in fiscal year 2015 to 1.4% in fiscal year 202114. There has been a strong and growing movement in Puerto Rico to transition to solar power.
The Queremos Sol Puerto Rico (We Want Sun Puerto Rico) initiative aims to reduce residential electricity rates and cover basic needs during future crises. They ultimately want to have the island produce at least 50% of its electricity from renewable energy resources like solar and wind by 2035, and 100% by 2050. Their initiatives include:
- Installing solar systems on the roofs of houses to make them more resilient.
- Building “solar communities” where people go out to jointly buy solar systems to reduce costs.
- Creating community microgrids.
“Puerto Rico can become a role model for the transition to renewable energy for small island nations and a model bottom-up transformation for other communities in the United States. It can also serve as a model of an integrated energy focus that includes risk reduction, climate change, health, adaptability, equity, and democratization.” - Queremos Sol, 2020
In addition, groups like Casa Pueblo, are pushing for their #50%withSOL campaign, an initial goal of 50% energy generation for the country with the sun. They believe it is necessary to invest in the installation of photovoltaic solar panels in homes, businesses, and public buildings, and develop communities of renewable energy microgrids.
“Building communities with distributed generation microgrids will make our country less dependent on transmission and distribution lines, therefore more resilient to handle recurring collapses in the public or private energy service.” - Casa Pueblo
After the first night when Hurricane Fiona hit the island, Casa Pueblo posted a picture of their Nuestro Bosque Solar (Our Solar Forest) on their Instagram page (pictured below) standing strong during the aftermath. They added, “...many have had the backup energy serve them well during Fiona's passage. As soon as the sun rises, energy returns in remote locations that are left behind by weeks from the central system. Today the weather is still very windy and rainy, but ready for tomorrow to start distributing 2k solar lamps that we have for a rapid local response in our communities.” -Casa Pueblo16
Like Casa Pueblo, people have benefited from power supplied by microgrids. Under the Solar Schools Project17, the Puerto Rican housing authority designated some schools with about 120 microgrids as emergency shelters18. They were installed in 83 municipalities by Red Cross, Direct Relief and Blue Planet Energy, currently supporting communities across the island. It is clear that frontline communities, especially those impacted by natural disasters can greatly benefit from renewable energy like solar power.
Benefits of Frontline Community-Led Solar Policy
Last year, Just Solutions Collective and the People’s Solar Energy Fund released,
“The Rising Dawn: How equitable solar policy can forward economic and climate justice”, a three-part blog series of policy models and insights from environmental justice leaders on Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) frontline community-led solar policy. It is clear that an equitable, community-led solar policy brings a multitude of community benefits that go far beyond a discount on your electric bill. Frontline communities want solar policies that build racial and social justice and produce economic, environmental, health, social, and political benefits, ones that create good green jobs, healthy neighborhoods, and wealth in their communities. BIPOC-frontline communities understand that controlling their source of energy is an important part of racial and economic justice.
“When the community doesn’t own the solar project, the bulk of the economic benefits go to private developers, not the communities using the energy. Equity is not just access but who owns and who benefits from it.” - Timothy DenHerder Thomas, Cooperative Energy Futures19
Examples of Frontline Community-Led Solar Policy Advocacy from Around the Country
There is a growing demand for and commitment to community solar that addresses equity issues. As such, there is a growing array of policies and programs catering specifically to expanding solar access to communities across the country. By looking closer at specific models that have had some successes, we can get a sense of what an effective, community-oriented solar policy that prioritizes equity should look like and derive insights on what we could improve and scale. Part two of “The Rising Dawn: How equitable solar policy can forward economic and climate justice Part 2/3” explores how California, New York, and Minnesota address the following:
- Policies that increase the accessibility of solar energy to low-income communities
- A policy that targets direct benefits to BIPOC-Frontline communities
- Reforming the policies and ownership of utilities
- Other progressive models of solar deployment
Natural disasters like Hurricane Fiona are proof that more work needs to be done within our energy system. Renewable energy, specifically BIPOC-Frontline community led solar is important because it is necessary for a just transition. With millions of federal funding being funneled into disaster relief and power restoration in Puerto Rico, it is critical that this public money is spent effectively for the benefit of BIPOC-Frontline communities.