FEMA has committed $9.4 billion to rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electrical system. How will the funds be used? Environmental activists want to see renewable energy become the focus.
Under the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act, 40% of the Island’s electricity must come from from renewable resources by 2025. By 2040, 60% must be renewable, and the proportion must increase to 100% by 2050. The law, passed in 2019, called for 15% renewable energy in 2020.
Wind, hydropower, and solar energy are all practical options for Puerto Rico. For the fiscal year 2020, though, only 2.5% of PREPA’s electricity came from renewable energy. Solar energy provided half of that amount, or 1.25%, and wind power made up .8%. The remainder came from water power.
But nearly 98% of Puerto Rico’s electricity was produced with fossil fuels.
Puerto Rico’s capacity for renewable energy
With an average of 2,829 hours of sunshine each year, Puerto Rico is strongly positioned for solar power. Retailer Walmart, for example, installed rooftop solar in five of their Walmart facilities on the Island and generates 35% of their electric power from those installations. There are multiple solar farms on the Island, and two utility-sized wind farms.
Hydroelectric power plants were built before 1960. While they are in need of repair and FEMA has earmarked a small amount for that purpose, they currently provide less than 1% of the Island’s power.
In spite of Puerto Rico’s climate laws and capacity, it appears that FEMA plans to use natural gas to rebuild the electric grid.
Critics claim that while it could be cheaper in the short run to go with natural gas, rather than solar power, it will also be less resilient. With climate change leading to more frequent and more severe natural disasters, critics say that relying on natural gas increases the likelihood that Puerto Rico’s electric grid will be knocked out, as it was after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Power was not fully restored across the Island until August, 2018, nearly a year after the hurricane.
Natural gas must be shipped to Puerto Rico, adding to the uncertainty as well as the long-term cost of its use. Opponents note that it may also contribute to climate change and claim that since climate change is a primary reason for increasingly frequent and deadly hurricanes, this could create a vicious circle.
A test for the USA
“Puerto Rico could be the big experiment for the whole nation in terms of having a diversified portfolio of energy, not just one experiment in terms of renewables,” said Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón.
Energy management has been a challenge for Puerto Rico. In 2019, the Government Accountability Office said that “better information and enhanced coordination” would be needed to address the challenges. They reviewed PREPA, the electric company in Puerto Rico, and FEMA’s plans to fix the problems.
“Before Hurricanes Irma and Maria, PREPA was insolvent and approximately $9 billion in debt,” they reported. “Further, its electric power infrastructure was known to be in poor condition, largely due to underinvestment and poor maintenance practices.”
At the time of the report, funds had not been allocated to help with the rebuilding. Additionally, the GAO identified some specific challenges to the process, including lack of responsiveness and guidance from HUD and FEMA, as well as a lack of capacity on the part of PREPA.
A new company, LUMA, has taken over the electrical system, but faces many of the same problems. Power outages continue to plague the Island, but LUMA claims to be optimistic that the situation will improve.