Brentin Mock/CityLab

Puerto Rico just adopted legislation that commits it to generating all its power from renewable sources. Here’s what separates that from what’s going on in D.C.

On April 11, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló signed into law the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act, which commits the island to powering itself exclusively from renewable-energy sources by the year 2050 and phasing out all coal plants by 2028. Under the law, the electric grid will be broken up into a quilt of mini- and microgrids to facilitate solar-power development at all scales, as will the monopoly currently held by the deeply troubled government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA.

Puerto Rico has now joined the ranks of cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and the states of Hawaii and California, all of which have pledged or mandated 100-percent clean energy before the half-century mark. Upon the bill becoming law, several media outlets referred to Puerto Rico’s clean-energy package as the island’s own new version of the “Green New Deal”—a reference to the ambitious climate justice-focused legislation package championed by progressive congressional lawmakers such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

However, there are several reasons to pause applying the “Green New Deal” label to Puerto Rico’s new power-generation package. For one, the almost inevitable privatization of PREPA might not only complicate the transition to renewable energy, but could also result in higher electricity bills, with the poorest families ending up the most financially burdened. Also, while the “Green New Deal” has specific language about economic and racial justice for historically oppressed families and workers, no such language exists in the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act—a problem of immediate import.

“If a strong hurricane comes this season, hundreds of thousands of families are going to be out of shape and will go months without power,” says Marcel J. Castro-Sitiriche, an engineering professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. “There are about 200,000 families that need to have immediate access to solar panels and batteries, and by 2020 those vulnerabilities should be covered.”

The 200,000 families he’s referring to is based on the last 30 percent of households to have their electricity restored after Hurricane Maria, according to a policy brief that Castro-Sitiriche recently published. That final remnant of non-connected families mostly live in small towns and villages spread across the mountainous parts of the island’s interior and its southern coast. These same areas are also home to some of the lowest-income communities with the highest vulnerabilities to natural-disaster impacts such as flooding and landslides.

“These 200,000 families should be the main energy policy priority for 2020,” reads the brief.

The dot clusters show the areas where the last 30 percent of families to have their power restored after Hurricane Maria live. For these families, it took at least 130 days to regain electricity, and for some it took upwards of 270 days. The larger and darker the dots, the longer it took to get power back. ( Power Puerto Rico-Rocky Mountain Institute)

I saw some of this firsthand when I visited Puerto Rico in October 2018, particularly in the Central Aguirre barrio of the city of Salinas, on the southeast coast of the island, where some families still didn’t have power over a year after Maria. Here stands the mammoth Aguirre Power Plant Complex, where oil is processed and burned to generate nearly 15 percent of Puerto Rico’s power capacity. Another of Puerto Rico’s major power sources, the AES coal power plant, stands less than 10 miles away from the oil-burning plant, right across the Jobos Bay, amidst several mountains of coal ash. Both the oil and coal plants spit waste into the bay, which is also home to an estuarine sanctuary for endangered West Indian manatees.

On September 20, 2017, when Hurricane Maria made landfall not far from here, it flooded and brought raging winds throughout Guayama (the city where the coal plant is located) and Salinas, particularly the Central Aguirre communities that were once ground zero for America’s colonizing exploits of Puerto Rico’s sugar industry. Families living across these two cities today are beset with poverty from both the legacy of the sugar industry that was felled by late-20th-century U.S. trade policies and the environmental burden of living in the shadows of the two power plants today.

( Power Puerto Rico-Rocky Mountain Institute)

Those power plants sustained modest damage from Maria, and in about a month, they were able to transmit power all the way to San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city, on the north coast of the island. Meanwhile, some neighborhoods close to the plants went as long as nine months without power. Just seven months after Maria, the island experienced a massive blackout again when transmission lines flowing between the oil and coal plants failed.

(Congressional Research Service/”Repair or Rebuild: Options for Electric Power in Puerto Rico”)

A year after Maria, transmission poles and wires were still strewn across the streets and yards of the communities neighboring the power plants. An estimated 50,000 transmission poles needed repair after the hurricane, as did 80 percent of the island’s power infrastructure. When FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were brought in for emergency triage, the emphasis was on restoring the grid and getting all of the island’s power plants fully operational again. Those two federal agencies ended up spending more money just on restoring electricity ($4.2 billion) than was spent for the total relief package for Hurricane Harvey by the end of 2018, according to testimony from Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, at a recent congressional hearing.

A fallen transmission pole entangled in wires seen in a Central Aguirre neighborhood on October 14, 2018, more than a year after Hurricane Maria. The Aguirre Power Plant Complex looms in the background. (Brentin Mock)

What Castro-Sitiriche wants the Puerto Rico government to do is locate each of these last-connected households and supply them with the resources to build rooftop solar and batteries for storing energy. In his analysis, this would cost about $7,000 per family, or $1.4 billion in total. He estimates that 1 million homes could be outfitted with small home-solar systems for roughly $6.2 billion. Those are systems that can be dismantled in the calm days before a storm approaches and then reactivated after the hurricane subsides to immediately provide power from the energy stored in the cells. When the grid fails, that stored energy could kick in. It could also be sold for profit to other households or businesses that need power, or to electric companies for a reduction in the household’s electric bill.

Such transactions would fulfill one of the missions of Puerto Rico’s new renewable-energy law: turning families from energy consumers to “prosumers”—meaning, both producers and consumers of energy. By targeting the poorest and hardest-to-reach families, the new law would produce a more just energy-security policy and comport a lot more closely with one of the core goals of the “Green New Deal” that’s currently circulating in the mainland:

Promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of frontline and vulnerable communities, including indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated
rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.

Privatizing Puerto Rico’s power problems

Along the Jobos Bay coast, just a stone’s throw from the Aguirre Aguirre Power Plant Complex, sits a small playground with a forked tree by it that’s propping up a black basketball hoop. A sign posted just below the rim reads: Los ninos son nuestro mayor tesoro cuidalos, protegelos, vigilalos. The message translates to “Children are our greatest treasure, take care of them, protect them, watch them.”

With binoculars, you can see the AES coal plant and its ash-waste mountains from the playground, just over the harbor. The Central Aguirre barrios that the playground serves seems trapped between the two fossil-fuel plants. Meanwhile, PREPA is planning to build yet another fossil-fuel plant in this area—this one burning liquefied natural gas—right off the coast, near the playground, the homes, and the protected manatee sanctuary. It’s not clear any of the power companies are heeding the message about protecting the children.

(Brentin Mock)

While it would cost $1.4 billion to provide rooftop solar to the families most vulnerable to disasters, it would cost $2 billion alone to build just one of the new proposed gas plants that PREPA is currently planning. PREPA authorities believe that natural-gas capacity is needed as a short-term bridge energy platform while it phases out coal-fired plants and develops solar and wind infrastructure. In the most recent draft of the Integrated Resource Plan—PREPA’s plan for reconfiguring and executing Puerto Rico’s energy future—only five possible future energy scenarios were “deemed worthy of analysis.” All of them include natural-gas deployment to one extent or another over the next few years.  

Again, those gas plants, and the grid system they would rely on, would not be immediately helpful for the island’s most remote and vulnerable families if a hurricane hit this year or next. It’s also not entirely clear that they would remain just a “bridge” or interim power source as the energy authorities claim. The billions it will cost to build that new liquefied-gas production and distribution infrastructure will sink the financially insolvent island even deeper in debt. As it stands, customers in Puerto Rico pay more per kilowatt hour for electricity than in any state in the U.S., with 70 percent of each electric bill going toward importing oil and paying off Puerto Rico’s debts.

The Aguirre Power Plant Complex in Central Aguirre, near John F. Kennedy Plaza. (Brentin Mock)

PREPA’s power plan also calls for breaking up the main grid into regional mini-grids so that grid failure no longer affects the whole island, and to better accommodate the expansion of solar power infrastructure. However, the privatization of PREPA could still worsen cost factors at the consumer level, as those private contractors might view too much solar, especially at the individual household rooftop level, as incompatible with their bottom lines.

“Despite the widespread public consensus in favor of microgrids and distributed renewable energy to support grid resiliency in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the projects that have been publicly mentioned as part of the privatization are all large-scale projects,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in his April 9 testimony at a congressional hearing on rebuilding and privatizing Puerto Rico’s energy authority. “By overbuilding the centralized generation system through a series of long-term contracts, PREPA or its successor will have an incentive to maintain electricity consumption at levels that support payment of those contracts, which could lead to erecting barriers to make it more difficult for customers to self-generate their own power.”

In that testimony, Sanzillo said that PREPA had not responded to his FOIA requests on how they created their future energy scenarios, particularly the ones involving natural gas plants. According to the IEFFA’s analysis, privatizing PREPA would likely increase electricity costs on the island. It should be noted that PREPA has an extensive history of corruption, poor management, and political cronyism—all factors that have resulted in the billions of dollars of debt that it currently is trying to work its way out of, and with little success. The proposal to privatize PREPA was supposedly made to de-politicize the power system. But some are skeptical that Puerto Rico can privatize its way out of those problems.

“Any effort to transform Puerto Rico’s electric system needs to consider the predatory behavior of PREPA’s internal and external interest groups that benefit from the current situation and provide mechanisms for limiting or eliminating that behavior,” said Sergio M. Marxuach Colón, policy director for the Center for a New Economy, testifying at the same hearing. If the privatization process is limited to transferring a corrupt company in the public sector to a group of corrupt investors in the private sector, we will have accomplished absolutely nothing.”

We need to talk about decolonization

It’s important to note that Puerto Rican communities haven’t been just sitting around waiting for their government officials to come save them. Many of them have been proactively building out their own local renewable-energy systems, exercising agency and self-determination throughout the arduous post-Maria recovery process. In many ways, the Puerto Rican government’s new law is basically an adoption and scaling up of community-based renewable energy projects that were already in the works.

For example, Puerto Rican architect Jonathan Marvel helped build 28 solar microgrids and several community-scale solar systems in at least a dozen cities across the island in 2018. The Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico helped install solar panels and battery storage systems for 37 community health clinics, and helped design and build a solar microgrid for the Toro Negro community in Ciales, which went eight months without power after Maria. And in the mountain city of Adjuntas, a community co-op called Casa Pueblo worked with Sierra Club of Puerto Rico to jump-start several solar installation initiatives in its own community and neighboring locales.

Casa Pueblo was one of the communities that Tiffany Taulton, an African-American grad student at Carnegie Mellon University, visited in March as part of an alternative spring-break project she organized among her colleagues. Taulton lived on the island when she was younger with her father, who was stationed at the now-closed Sabana Seca military base. It was her second year organizing the Puerto Rico trip, and one difference she noticed between the two trips was the shift in how people spoke about the recovery and their own empowerment: The first year, it was all about politics and energy, but this year it was more about culture.

A Carnegie Mellon University student trip to Puerto Rico. (Tiffany Taulton)

When they met with Casa Pueblo director Alexis Massol-Deyá, he explained to them how when first trying to organize people years ago to stand up against encroaching mining operations, he could barely get anyone to come to the meetings. He started getting more community buy-in, though, when he explained to people that the miners were destroying the forests that the communities depended on for creating instruments that they played at their festivals.

“A lot of people said to us, we need to talk about decolonization first—let’s break what we have right now, decolonize our minds, decolonize our relationship with the U.S., and have a relationship as equals, and then decide what we’re going to do next,” says Taulton. “Yes, it’s about energy; yes, it’s about the economy; but there was a real emphasis on culture and what it means to be Puerto Rican, and what that means for their relationship with the U.S. right now.”

Part of why the people of Puerto Rico haven’t been able to realize their renewable energy goals sooner is because of the island’s subservient relationship to the U.S. Puerto Rico, in fact, passed a law in 2014 requiring it to derive 12 percent of its power from renewables by now, but when Maria hit, it was still obtaining 98 percent of its power from fossil-fuel sources. The island’s lack of any real sovereign authority—its dubious distinction as a “federal territory”—has left it at the mercy of the U.S. Congress, the fiscal operations management board Congress created to lord over its finances in 2016, and a gang of bondholders, hedge fund firms, and debtors of every variety.

Several U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the early 20th century—the notorious “Insular Cases”—have basically locked Puerto Rico into second-if not-third-class citizenship where they can’t enjoy all of the rights that come with U.S. citizenship. Even now, anything included in Puerto Rico’s renewable-energy law or its long-term energy plan can be un-included or modified by the fiscal management board installed by the federal government.

One example of how mainland laws supersede Puerto Rico’s can be found in the tax-reform law the Trump administration signed into law a few months after Maria. It treats Puerto Rico as a “foreign jurisdiction” and hence taxes certain income and business profits created there at a higher rate. This means, in some cases, that innovative new solar or wind technology created in Puerto Rico under the new law will be more costly to develop on the island at the same time that it’s trying to climb its way out of further indebtedness and poverty.  

Writing about such contradictions for the Harvard Law Review, former U.S. District of Puerto Rico Court Judge Juan R. Torruella,  (and current U.S. Court of Appeals Judge) said:

The starting point has to be the fact that we are dealing with a gross civil rights violation perpetrated for over a century against several million U.S. citizens. They have been denied equality with the rest of the nation for the absurd reason that they reside in a different geographic area than the great majority of their fellow citizens. Why geographic location should make any difference or have any relevance to a determination of such a fundamental question as the rights to which a citizen is entitled defies any logic or valid legal principle …

This means that there are still ethnic, economic, and historic injustices that need to be resolved in Puerto Rico. The new renewable-energy law includes a lot of language about economic empowerment for the island as a whole, but it does not prioritize the people who’ve been hardest hit by and last to recover from natural disasters, nor does it target the families most affected by the disastrous economic policies and impacts of colonization.

Which means that while the new law is an excellent step forward for establishing a greener energy future for Puerto Rico and addressing climate change, it is not a climate justice bill. It is not a “Green New Deal,” which by its very name implies a redistribution of wealth and labor such that those at the bottom of the economic scale can chart a direct path out of poverty.

Only 10 percent of recovery contracts have gone to local Puerto Rico-based firms, after accounting for minimum federal local hiring requirements, according to the Center for a New Economy report, “Puerto Rico’s Unfinished Business After Maria.” If the majority of contracts for Puerto Rico’s new renewable-energy law go to private companies outside of the island, that will only exacerbate the poverty and inequality that currently exist. That’s neither justice nor a New Deal; it would just be business as usual.  

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