Boosting Energy Security: Lessons from Post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico

Before the hurricane, only 2 percent of the territory’s electrical power came from renewable energy sources. There rest was from petroleum (47 percent), natural gas (34 percent) and coal (17 percent). And because Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico about a decade into an economic crisis, the electricity infrastructure was already vulnerable. The EIA found that before the hurricane, PREPA’s electricity generators were 28 years older and experienced outage rates 12 times higher than the U.S. average.

“Other countries should look at themselves in the mirror of austerity,” says Arturo Massol-Deyá, a biology professor at UPR Mayagüez and long-time environmental activist with Casa Pueblo, a community-based organization founded more than 30 years ago to protect natural resources in Puerto Rico.

“By not paying attention to infrastructure and not having maintained it, by not doing [the] things that are necessary, when a hurricane happens like this, the consequences are catastrophic,” Massol-Deyá says. “Other countries need to be careful when they manage their economic crisis and the rest, not to place their countries in a position of increased vulnerability before natural events.”

Lesson 2: The Value of Decentralization
A decentralized electrical system would increase resiliency, says Orama-Exclusa.

Aguirre Power Plant for example, is one of the four main power plants on the island. Located in the southern coastal town of Salinas, it supplies electricity to the San Juan metropolitan area in northeastern Puerto Rico. The Los Angeles Times reported that the power plant was already neglected and suffering failures before the hurricane. After the hurricane, Aguirre was not operating; approximately two months after Hurricane Maria swept over Puerto Rico, PREPA was still working to restore a powerline from Salinas to the north. 

Hurricanes often interrupt shipments, “so you have oil shortages, diesel shortages, gas shortages, coal shortages,” says lawyer and activist Ruth Santiago a long-time Salinas resident with ties to the Comité Dialogo Ambiental, a group that works towards environmental protection and sustainability. “It makes a lot more sense to have your energy generation closer to where it’s going to be used, as opposed to long-distance. … [T]hat means that communities now need to be involved in energy generation.”

Orama-Exclusa says the Puerto Rican government should use the Island Energy Playbook, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Transitions Initiative and recommends a framework for an energy transition that communities can use. It also includes lessons learned from various islands that have been making energy changes, and templates and worksheets for proposed work. For example, the playbook showcases the creation of “clear and well-defined interconnection policies and procedures” in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which in 2010 set a goal to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels 60% by 2025.

Lesson 3: Renewables Add Resilience
Renewable energy sources in particular are a focal point of the ongoing discussion about the resiliency of the sources of electricity on the island.

Orama-Exclusa says that renewable energy sources, such as solar power, can boost resilience. A system based on renewables could support the creation of micro-networks of energy that are more resilient than centralized distribution systems. Some households have already started using solar energy, so they can depend less on the main PREPA grid. And according to National Public Radio, Puerto Ricans are expected to spend more than US$400 million on solar power in the next five years.

Poverty, however, is still a significant obstacle for many people, says Massol-Deyá.

Several groups, including Cambio, Comité Dialogo Ambiental, Sierra Club Puerto Rico, and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), are supporting a civil society energy proposal called Queremos Sol, which calls for a “rapid move to rooftop solar communities … that would empower local communities and local people,” says Santiago.

Yet Massol-Deyá and others are concerned that despite the advantages that renewables offer for boosting resilience to future hurricanes, the Puerto Rican government might be moving away from renewable energy sources.

Eye to the Future
After the hurricane, the government set up the same infrastructure that was present before, Massol-Deyá says. If close to a Category 3 hurricane or above were to make landfall in Puerto Rico now, “the country’s electrical system would be just as destroyed as it was in 2017,” Orama-Exclusa says — though recovery might be quicker because PREPA employees have an idea of what’s needed to get the system up and running again after such an event. There is also the question of what will happen if PREPA is privatized, since the Puerto Rican government is trying to sell it.

Groups from different sectors of society have proposed or created plans to guide Puerto Rico’s electrical future. Several of the plans are tied to the Puerto Rican government: the Plan Integrado de Recursos (PIR) or Integrated Resource Plan (IRP); the Restructuring Support Agreement (RSA) to restructure PREPA’s debt; and a law signed in April 2019 by then–Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to establish the island’s energy public policy. Those three frameworks contradict each other, Orama-Exclusa says; which will prevail remains to be seen.

Eighteen organizations, including Espacios Abiertos, Cambio, and the Instituto Nacional de Energía y Sostenibilidad Isleña, have asked that the restructuring agreement be cancelled because it would benefit bondholders and increase the cost of electricity for consumers, Metro Puerto Rico reported. The agreement was also criticized in a letter signed in June 2019 by 36 U.S. congressional representatives, arguing that the deal should be rejected. The representatives expressed concern in that letter that the agreement “will increase Puerto Ricans’ electric bills and stymie development of renewable energy,” according to a report in The Hill.

Orama-Exclusa is concerned that the utility will move from petroleum to natural gas. “That would be contrary to the philosophy of the rest of the world, because even countries with no sunlight are moving towards solar energy,” he says. His concern isn’t unfounded: El Nuevo Día reported in July 2019 that construction is underway for a new electrical power plant in northern Puerto Rico, which will run on natural gas. 

According to Orama-Exclusa, Puerto Rico’s situation suggests that governments should agree on one vision for their energy future before establishing a regulatory framework and renegotiating debts. Additionally, he says that the vision should be agreed upon by citizens through an open, participatory system. Then the government and policymakers need to adopt that vision and make energy plans that go along with the vision.

If this strategy is put into place in Puerto Rico, the more resilient energy production and distribution system that results could help the territory deal with future hurricanes better and bounce back faster than was the case with Maria. Perhaps then there could be less suffering and fewer deaths like those that have left a deep wound in the hearts of countless Puerto Ricans, even as they strive to move forward and prepare themselves for a potential future hurricane.

Mariela Santos-Muñizis a freelance journalist based in Puerto Rico. She wrote this story as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the project was Aleszu Bajak.This article is published courtesy of Ensia.