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How Puerto Rico is preparing its electric grid for future hurricanes

Shay Bahramirad is the vice president for engineering, asset management and capital projects at the LUMA Energy Corporation, in front of a schematic of Puerto Rico’s electric grid. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)
Shay Bahramirad is the vice president for engineering, asset management and capital projects at the LUMA Energy Corporation, in front of a schematic of Puerto Rico’s electric grid. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Find out more about our Reverse Course series here.

Climate-fueled disasters have ravaged Puerto Rico’s electrical system several times in recent years. Now, as another hurricane season opens, many people there are fed up with how vulnerable the grid remains.

In December, Congress greenlit $1 billion to “improve the resilience of Puerto Rico’s electric grid,” on top of $11.4 billion already committed to the government-owned utility for recovery after Hurricane Fiona, which battered the island in September.

Fiona knocked out electricity across the territory for days — weeks in some areas — exposing how brittle Puerto Rico’s grid remains nearly six years after the unprecedented damage of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Many on the island want to break free from that cycle of destruction by building a decentralized grid powered largely by solar energy. But activists say the government isn’t doing enough to hasten that transition.

‘Pueblo Solar’

One vision for the future of Puerto Rico’s grid is in the small town of Adjuntas. Along Adjuntas’ central square, 14 businesses and two apartment buildings run on solar power, even as the sun sinks behind the mountains.

The main square in the mountain town of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. Adjuntas was one of the last towns to get help after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and has since developed a solar microgrid system with the guidance of the Honnold Foundation and Casa Pueblo. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

That’s thanks to two banks of batteries tucked behind a furniture store and a defunct gas station that store the power generated by Adjuntas’ rooftop solar panels during the day. Combined with some computers that orchestrate the local flow of electricity, this is a microgrid — a self-reliant mini-utility run independently of the island-wide grid.

The batteries are built to withstand extreme weather, says Cynthia Arellano, project manager for the Honnold Foundation, a nonprofit that helped Adjuntas build its microgrid.

“These guys are built for all conditions,” Arellano says. “Rain, shine. They’re built for Puerto Rico hurricane conditions.”

The project started with Casa Pueblo, a local community organization that has run on solar power for years. Casa Pueblo kept its lights on after Hurricane Maria, and became a community hub for people waiting weeks for the island’s grid operators to restore power.

Local business owners took after Casa Pueblo’s example and decided to not just get their own solar panels, but to pool their resources and share electricity. They formed a nonprofit to manage the microgrid like a mini-utility, and even decided to charge themselves for the power — $.25 per kilowatt-hour to start.

“The community was always like, ‘OK, we have this resiliency component. We have the solar, we have the battery, but we are going to charge ourselves for the power that we are consuming. We are going to reinvest that money into our own community,’” Arellano says. “They are going to be managing, operating and just owning the entire system.”

A flag reading “solar village” hangs from the patio of Lucy’s Pizza, one of the businesses in Adjuntas on the new microgrid. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Gustavo Irizarry is president of the newly formed Community Solar Energy Association of Adjuntas, or ACESA. He also runs a local pizza shop called Lucy’s. He says the microgrid gives him a sense of security and spirit of community.

“We have electricity security. And I have security for my employees, because they know there will be work,” Irizarry says. “That’s where good will comes in and where the community is able to unite. For example, we have two furniture stores that, on a daily basis, are competing because one sells furniture more cheaply than the other, but they both get electricity from the same roof. That’s why it is important to share energy, because the project is making a difference and making us a community.”

A ‘vicious cycle’

There are lots of communities in Puerto Rico who want what Adjuntas has.

La Margarita is one of them. It’s a neighborhood in the town of Salinas that experiences frequent flooding and power outages, especially after hurricanes. Many residents are elderly. Some live off a few hundred dollars a month from Social Security. And emergency preparedness is on everyone’s mind here, says Wanda Ríos, president of the neighborhood association.

“One of our missions was to have a resilient community,” Ríos says. “To have a resilient community, we have to have a resilient energy system.”

Earlier this year, they installed solar panels on the community center, but Ríos wants the whole neighborhood to form a microgrid to better prepare for the next storm.

“You can have a generator for maybe two or three hours and then you run out of gas. And when we have a hurricane, you don’t have gas,” she says. “If we want to keep living, we want a clean environment, we have to move to solar.”

The neighborhood association recently won a $30,000 grant from the federal Department of Energy to install more solar panels, but they need a lot more. And Ríos says the Puerto Rican government is too slow to certify groups like hers as energy cooperatives so they can access other types of financing.

Wanda Ríos, second from left, is president of The Asociación de Residentes de la Margarita (ARLM) in Salinas, Puerto Rico. The community organization formed in response to flooding in their neighborhood and is working to install solar panels on their homes (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

When I ask her what the one thing she needs is, Ríos has a simple answer:

“Money. Everybody is saying that they have the money for renewable energy. But the reality is they haven’t given me anything. There is no place where we are supposed to go,” she says. “It’s not easy what we’re doing, but we need justice for these elderly people. And somehow we’re going to figure out how we’re going to do it.”

Puerto Rico has committed to generating 100%t of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050, but so far it’s failing to hit its benchmarks.

“The change isn’t happening fast enough,” says Ruth Santiago, a lawyer and activist who lives in Salinas. She says the government should focus on people who can’t afford the upfront costs to install solar themselves.

“It’s an equity issue,” she says. “We’re developing a separate and unequal electric system here, where poor communities that have less access to the financing or the loans or there’s no public funding for these kinds of installations for low-income, middle-income people, well, they’re left behind.”

Santiago says fixing the grid is “a matter of life and death,” citing studies that have estimated prolonged power outages after Hurricane Maria led to excess deaths.

But just adding renewable energy is not enough, she says. Puerto Rico’s electricity is generated at power plants far from the main population center in San Juan. Whether it’s generated by a wind farm or a coal plant, that electricity has to travel long distances over power lines through the island’s central mountain range, which is often pummeled by storms.

That’s why Santiago wants to see more rooftop solar and microgrids across the island instead of utility-scale renewable energy plants that she says replicate the vulnerabilities of the existing grid. She’s part of a lawsuit against FEMA alleging the agency “failed to meaningfully consider” that option when it allocated billions of dollars in hurricane recovery money to rebuild the grid.

Santiago says the federal government’s message so far has been conflicted. The Department of Energy has $1 billion to invest in renewable energy on the island. But in a call out to contractors issued last week, the Army Corps of Engineers said some of FEMA’s $5 billion in disaster relief funding would go to new natural gas and oil-burning power plants for “temporary emergency power” in Puerto Rico.

“We’ve got to get out of this vicious cycle of depending on the centralized grid that gets knocked down with every hurricane or every other hurricane,” she says. “It’s a matter of the government listening to communities and people who are aware of the need for this transformation.”

‘We are significantly behind’

Shay Bahramirad, vice president of engineering for LUMA, the power company in charge of Puerto Rico’s electricity transmission, says it’s “inaccurate” to say they’re rebuilding the grid the same as it was.

“We are elevating substations. We are relocating substations. And we are adding a number of additional points in the system to make sure that if something happens to one part of the electrical system, the entire island is not going to go dark,” she says. “So fundamentally, the design of the system is completely different.”

And, Bahramirad says, the group is “committed” to bringing online more solar and some microgrids. But there are challenges.

Battery arrays for the microgrid system in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

“I would say that the toughest part of this industry at this point is the supply chain,” she says. “Equipment that used to be delivered in 16 months, now we are talking about 28 months, or at times, 60% longer than what it used to be.”

Another challenge is coordination between the myriad public and private operators of Puerto Rico’s grid, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which is bankrupt and still restructuring more than $9 billion in debt.

But even given all that, things are moving much too slowly, says Sergio Marxuach of the nonpartisan Center for a New Economy in San Juan.

“The people of Puerto Rico have been waiting for this for five and a half years, since Hurricane Maria. And yes, some progress has been made,” he says, “but we are significantly behind.”

Maxuach points out the Financial Oversight and Management Board that runs Puerto Rico’s budget approved contracts for hundreds of megawatts worth of renewable energy development a year ago, but the Puerto Rico Power Authority has yet to approve them so work can begin.

“They have a lot of excuses as to why they haven’t done it,” Maxuach says, “but the bottom line is they haven’t done it.”

Federal money could help. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded Puerto Rico has more than enough renewable energy potential to power the whole island. And the Energy Department is wrapping up a two-year study that will help guide Puerto Rico’s energy transition, which Marxuach says could attract more private investment.

He calls the recent influx of money from the federal government the “opportunity of a generation.”

“It’s definitely a turning point,” Marxuach says. “Decisions that are being made today are going to have an impact on our children and grandchildren here on the island. It would be sad if we lose this opportunity. I hope we don’t.”

‘Supercharged effort’

In October, President Biden tapped Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to lead what he called “a supercharged effort” to build a more resilient power grid for Puerto Rico. Granholm has traveled to the territory several times since.

“I think Puerto Rico recognizes this moment is a huge opportunity because there’s federal investment, in partnership with communities. So they have a plan, they have resources, and now we’ve got to make it happen,” Granholm tells Here & Now. “We recognize that we’re building on an old fossil fuel system. So, yes, there is some investment in rebuilding the grid so that people can have power today, but there is a much greater emphasis and desire to see the build out of this clean energy future.”

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Granholm says the federal government will be rolling out “a funding opportunity for people who want to get solar plus storage, who are low income, who are disabled, who are the most vulnerable and the least able to afford it” later this year. That’s on top of $3 billion in conditional loans to solar company Sunnova for solar and battery storage systems capable of selling power back to the grid.

“I don’t want Puerto Rico just to be an experiment,” Granholm says. “This is a moment. And Puerto Rico could be an example for the rest of the country.”

Power to the people

The Energy Department is also helping develop several microgrid projects, including on Vieques and Culebra, two smaller islands off Puerto Rico’s eastern shore. After Hurricane Maria, the islands were cut off from the rest of the territory with no regular transportation for weeks. The underwater electrical cable that connected them to Puerto Rico was damaged, and they were left only with diesel generators.

Today, there’s still no microgrid, but Culebra is on its way to becoming the first all-solar island in the hemisphere.

Nelson Meléndez’s house is already there.

Thanks to seven solar panels on his roof and a battery system on the front patio, his house produces more energy than it consumes, so he’s selling back to the grid on the main island.

The low energy bill — just $4 a month in fees, none for electricity — is great, Meléndez says, but what he really values is the peace of mind.

“Knowing that no matter what happens on the big island, whatever happens with the power generation, we’re OK,” he says.

Nelson Meléndez with his rooftop solar panels in Culebra. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

His system was installed as part of a program by Fundación Colibrí and the Environmental Defense Fund to bring solar to about 10% of the island’s buildings. Other homes have paid for their own solar panels, which means tiny Culebra is farther along in its goal of 100%  renewable electricity than the main island.

“I think a very important thing that our project here in Culebra is doing is giving power to the people — literally and figuratively talking,” says Braulio Quintero, EDF’s director for energy transition in Puerto Rico. “It’s going to lower the carbon footprint of Culebra. And I think even more powerful is that a successful project here will demonstrate to other islands in the Caribbean and around the world what could be done.”

In that way Quintero says decentralizing Puerto Rico’s power generation through microgrids and renewable energy is not about going it alone or getting rid of the grid altogether, but about building an alternative within it, from the community level on up.

“The model that is in Puerto Rico right now is this investor-owned utility, which is capturing the most clients and selling the most power, which is contrary to developing a 100%renewable energy island by 2050,” says Quintero. Changing that, he says, “is a matter of including the community, and the community taking agency and power over their energy situation.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.