American flag hung in front of a house destroyed by Hurricane Maria
Puerto Rico: For Real Resilience, Go Renewable
Puerto Ricans are facing new and ongoing threats to health, safety, and the economy, including those that stem from the spread of COVID-19. The deadly global pandemic has brought widespread economic disruption, all while the medical system continues to recover from recent shocks. Many in Puerto Rico lack homes or safe places due to ongoing earthquakes including a 5.4 magnitude tremor that shook the island earlier this spring, destroying buildings and again knocking out power. With warmer water temperatures and hurricane season upon us, the potential impact of overlapping disasters can cause deep anxiety among citizens.
Laudably, Puerto Rico moved quickly to lock down public activity due to COVID-19 while continuing to manufacture essential medical supplies and expedite stimulus for vulnerable individuals. With numerous vaccines, medicines, and critical medical equipment produced on the island, Puerto Ricans drive the national response to COVID-19. Nonprofit groups and businesses have found ways to support those without work and protect public safety. The community spirit needed to respond to these threats can be found everywhere one looks.
However, responding to these disasters and restarting the economy will also require an effective, efficient, and resilient power grid. During a lockdown, power becomes even more essential, keeping the lights on at essential businesses, medical equipment running at hospitals, and families connected for work and school at home, but limited progress has been achieved to strengthen the grid after Hurricane Maria. Power generation remains reliant on fossil fuels, electricity prices are volatile, and Puerto Ricans continue to experience persistent outages despite paying high rates. And recent choices for the power system could create new risks, while missing an opportunity for real resilience.
In 2019 and throughout this year, Puerto Rico has been planning for the improved grid of the future in the appropriate integrated resource planning process. Yet the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has acted in advance of that process to expedite investments in gas power, particularly a project in San Juan and new “emergency” generation at twelve distributed sites across the island, the latter of which PREPA now says has been scrapped. PREPA has stated that these gas sites will be financed by FEMA, but electricity customers must pay if this support does not materialize.
PREPA’s own analysis shows that when combined with batteries, renewable energy investments can improve resilience of the system. Unlike these gas plants, solar and battery-powered microgrids are not dependent on deliveries of fuel, which can be significantly disrupted in a hurricane or earthquake.
Solar and batteries aren’t just more reliable, they also reduce costs. In the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) process, PREPA found that renewable energy and energy efficiency are the most cost-effective options. In the recent IRP’s recommended “Energy System Modernization” scenario, baseload costs are projected to decline over 5 percent between 2019 and 2025 “…primarily due to the retirement of older generation and the addition of solar and storage.” (Puerto Rico Integrated Resource Plan Rev. 2, 6/7/2019, p. 8-53).
If PREPA has opted to not go forward with some of its new gas-fired generation proposals, then it’s the Energy Bureau’s duty to etch that decision in stone. If any of these gas investments move forward, communities will have to bear the financial and environmental costs and will lose the opportunity for reliable and resilient power. The choice is clear: Puerto Rico must pursue solar, batteries, and energy efficiency to quickly create jobs and move toward a more resilient grid less dependent on external supply chains.
This path is not only logical: it’s the law in Puerto Rico. Act 57-2014, as amended by the bipartisan and forward-looking Act 17 of 2019, requires that the Energy Bureau approve PREPA’s proposed IRP within the guardrails of Puerto Rico law and the public interest, considering “all reasonable resources to satisfy the demand for electric power including […] energy conservation and efficiency, demand response, and distributed generation by industrial, commercial, or residential customers.” (Sec. 1.1(p) & 1.9(1) of Act 17).
The Bureau must also ensure that environmental impact assessments related to air emissions and climate change proceed and thoroughly consider rapid integration of distributed generation and renewable energy projects as required by Act 17 of 2019. Most importantly, the legislation requires that “no contract for the establishment of new electric power plants may preclude compliance with the Renewable Portfolio Standard and the integration of distributed generation, microgrids, or energy cooperatives. Power purchase agreements shall be awarded taking into account the goals and mandates established in the Renewable Portfolio Standard which compel the transition from energy generation from fossil fuels to an aggressive integration of renewable energy…” (Sec. 1.11(b) of Act 17).
The Energy Bureau is ready to issue its final IRP resolution and there is measured optimism in the community that a binding instrument will be adopted to guide both Puerto Rico’s short- and long-term energy path. This final IRP resolution can and should help wean Puerto Rico off its self-destructive addiction to fossil fuels, and towards a future of resilient, clean, local renewable energy and storage. Expediting the clean energy future, through appropriate planning and stimulus investments, must be the priority.
Federal support can help achieve this pathway and should be brought to bear by unified and organized Puerto Rican entities. For real resiliency, PREPA should increase support for community-centric solar and storage microgrids as they can save communities money, support the broader grid and provide back-up power in outages simultaneously. We urge leaders in Puerto Rico to act now, relying on the IRP which shows these gas investments damage air quality, go against policy, and are too costly for Puerto Ricans. Instead, we can create new jobs and put people back to work, supporting a post-COVID-19 economic recovery while installing the clean, modern, and resilient grid of the future.
This article was first published as an op-ed in Spanish in El Nuevo Día.