The devastation to Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure caused by Hurricane Maria opens the door to a powerful opportunity. The storm wiped out more than 2,400 miles of aging power transmission lines leaving people without power. Almost 80 percent of Puerto Ricans still have no electricity. This gives the people of Puerto Rico a blank slate to imagine the future of energy on the island.
The issue of energy justice is more prescient than ever on the island. Energy justice infers coordinated efforts to wean the US territory off of fossil fuels and aggressively build a clean energy infrastructure. In this sense Hurricane Maria can augur a better energy future for the people of Puerto Rico.
“This is an opportunity to completely transform the way electricity is generated in Puerto Rico and the federal government should support this,” Judith Enck, the former EPA Region 2 administrator, told Earther. “They need a clean energy renewables plan and not spending hurricane money propping up the old fossil fuel infrastructure”.
When it was available, Puerto Rico’s fossil fuel generated electricity was expensive at around $0.20 per kWh. This is about far m ore then regular power outages. Some have said that energy is at the heart of the island’s economic woes (the territory is almost $80 million in debt). The only utility in the territory is Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and they are $9 million in debt. The utility has failed to properly maintain the now devastated power grid resulting in frequent outages.
Replacing the old power grid with clean energy will make it both more resilient and more efficient. In the Earther article Brian Kahn described the situation in Puerto Rico as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to build a cutting-edge power grid.
Before Maria Puerto Rico got almost all (90%) of its energy from fossil fuels and more than two thirds (70%) of the territory’s electricity is generated from imported oil. Now that Hurricane Maria has leveled transmissions lines this is precisely the time for Puerto Ricans to leave the past behind and make a forward-looking choice. It does not make sense to rebuild the same dirty energy infrastructure that has proven to be so vulnerable to extreme weather. In the age of the anthropocene, we know that extreme weather is a fact of life that will get worse.
The feedback loop between fossil fuels and extreme weather makes the case for clean energy. One of the most compelling features of distribed energy microgrids is that fact that they are more reslient than a centralized fossil fuel powered grid.
“A Puerto Rico transformed into an archipelago of microgrids would also in theory better stand up to storms and provide cheaper energy.” explained by Umair Irfan in a Vox article. He goes on to say, “the failure of Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure presents a kind of tabula rasa, and some are seizing the moment”.
Richard Branson the founder of Virgin lives in the British Virgin Islands and he withstood the recent hurricanes with the help of a renewable energy microgrid. Branson is launching a green energy fund that will expand wind and solar installations in the Caribbean.
Many companies are involved with the relief effort and some are on the ground installing battery power on the island. This includes Duracell, and German energy storage firm Sonnen. Companies like SunRun and Vivint Solar are also joining the renewable energy relief efforts. Few are doing more than Tesla’s Elon Musk. In a very brief amount of time Musk was able to ship and instal Tesla batteries to provide much needed power to hospitals and clinics. Musk is currently in talks with the territory’s governor about ways that Tesla could scale renewables in the territory.
“Florida and Japan show clean energy is fastest, cheapest way to restore power. Too bad Trump’s administration hates it,” Joe Romm wrote in a Think Progress article. The logic of rebuilding using renewables is overwhelming but hard to achieve in the absence of federal government support.
US political leaders reject renewables based on partisan politics having nothing to do with a fact based assessment of what is best for the island. The GOP and the Trump Trump administration’s climate denial are a matter of public record, as is their alliance with the fossil fuel industry. During the campaign Trump made it known that he strongly supports the oil and coal. This means that Puerto Rico can expect nothing but resistance from the federal government. To compound matters Trump and his crew of misanthropes have shown a cavalier disregard for the territory and blatent disinterest in clean energy.
While support from the Trump administration is unlikely, investors have shown interest in renewable energy on the island.
Renewable energy should be part of the rebuilding process and a number of energy companies are stepping up to provide clean power starting with hospitals and fire stations.
Trump’s Climate Denial as Puerto Ricans Continue to Die in the Wake of Hurricane Maria
Trump’s Climate Denial Makes Storms and Wildfires Worse
US Hurricanes and the GOP’s Climate Denial
Trump’s Climate Denial the GOP and Fossil Fuels
Hurricane Harvey and the State of Climate Science