TRUJILLO ALTO, Puerto Rico – It doesn’t take natural disasters or bad weather for Marta Rojas to lose access to electricity on any given day.
“We have to become diviners to cook or do laundry before the power goes out,” Rojas, 73, said in Spanish.
Rojas said many of his neighbors who are disabled and need oxygen tanks to breathe must rely on generators to power unplanned outages, resulting in costs many struggle to afford.
The roar of generators and the strong smell of gasoline are such constants that they sometimes seem to take hold of Puerto Rico, even in the absence of adverse weather events.
Rojas, of Trujillo Alto, said she remembers a Puerto Rico where power outages were rare. However, that all changed when Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s ailing and divested power grid in 2017, triggering the longest and largest blackout in US history.
Most of the approximately 3,000 people who died after Maria’s death died from lack of electricity and the resulting interruptions to medical and other services.
The grid has yet to be permanently rebuilt, so the patched grid still works, causing blackouts and brownouts when people least expect it.
“It’s a matter of life and death, especially after Maria,” said Ruth Santiago, a community and environmental activist from the southern town of Salinas.
Meanwhile, Rojas and other electricity customers in Puerto Rico have been subject to seven electricity price hikes in the past year, even though Puerto Ricans are already paying about two times more than customers in the Americas.
A combination of these factors has prompted a growing number of Puerto Ricans to switch to renewable energy in hopes of finally having reliable electricity.
But currently, less than 4% of electricity production comes from renewable sources. Puerto Rico is in a race to meet local guidelines that require 40% of electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2025, with a goal of reaching 100% renewable electricity by 2050.
In San Juan, Víctor Santana installed solar panels on the roof of his house more than a year ago. Santana said his electricity bill has dropped significantly and he even received a $600 credit last year for producing more energy than he consumed.
More importantly, Santana said he had power during Hurricane Fiona in September when most of Puerto Rico was in darkness. Fiona was the first hurricane to hit the island directly since Maria.
Victor Santana said his electricity bill had dropped significantly and he even received a $600 credit last year for producing more energy than he consumed. Nicole Acevedo/NBC News
Santana and 20 other families in her University Gardens neighborhood have come together to make the transition to renewable energy with the help of CAMBIO PR, a nonprofit group that works to make energy more sustainable and the process less expensive.
More than 45,000 rooftop solar systems have been connected to Puerto Rico’s power grid in the past two years, more than in the previous decade, Governor Pedro Pierluisi said.
Ingrid Vila, president of CAMBIO, said the Puerto Rican government “claims as its own achievement that many people have made the transition to renewable energy, when in reality it is something they have done themselves. “.
Since Maria, many Puerto Ricans with the means to switch to renewable energy have done so, Vila said.
“But that’s not most people,” Vila said. “That’s why we want to make sure that federal funds are used to help the most vulnerable and low-income people so they too can benefit.”
According to Pierluisi, $1.1 billion in public housing funds given to Puerto Rico after Maria will be used primarily to install solar panels and batteries in 30,000 low- and middle-income homes.
Another $1.3 billion will be used to develop microgrids, including one to power the Centro Médico, the island’s main hospital.
In December, Congress approved additional funding of $1 billion to install rooftop solar and battery storage systems in 40,000 homes in the island’s poorest and poorest communities.
Preliminary results from a Department of Energy community study called PR100, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, found that Puerto Rico has enough renewable energy resources to produce 10 times the energy it needed. need.
According to the study, Puerto Rico should prioritize rooftop solar panels and microgrids to meet its renewable energy goals, rather than building large solar farms that could jeopardize agricultural land and sheltered.
In Salinas, one of the most contaminated towns on the island, the environmental impact of a large solar farm is already weighing on communities, Santiago said.
Installation of solar panels on the roof of the community of El Coquí in Salinas, Puerto Rico. Ruth Santiago / Junta Comunitaria del Poblado Coquí
“How topsoil is removed from the land changes waterways. It doesn’t just affect hardy farmland. This affects flood levels in a flood-prone city,” Santiago said, adding that a second large solar farm is being built.
Solar farms could be useful for bringing renewable energy to people who live in condos or in homes whose roofs aren’t suitable for solar panels, said Carlos Alberto Velázquez, program director at the Interstate Energy Council. renewable.
“But what we can’t do is build these systems in areas that are ecologically important or have agricultural value,” Velázquez said. “Food security is as important, if not more important, than energy security.”
According to Pierluisi, 18 large solar parks are under construction or planned in Puerto Rico.
Amid two solar parks and a coal-fired power plant in Salinas, Santiago and other community members in the El Coquí area have installed more than 25 solar panels in homes and public spaces.
Microgrid solar panels in Castañer, a community in the town of Lares, Puerto Rico. Courtesy of Carlos Alberto Velázquez/IREC
Velázquez is part of the team at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, an organization promoting clean energy transition that last summer inaugurated a microgrid in Castañer, a community in the mountain town of Lares.
The PR100 study found that microgrids and smaller distributed systems improve the overall resilience of the island’s power system, primarily because it recovers faster after disasters.
“With the same enthusiasm, the government is approving 18 large solar farms,” Velázquez said, “it is also expected to approve hundreds of microgrid projects.”
“We have seen microgrid pilot projects work again and again. They have to become the norm,” Velázquez said, adding that work is underway to build another microgrid in the city of Maricao.
With the permanent rebuilding of the devastated power grid on the horizon, Santana is grateful to have gone solar. He predicts outages will only increase as they have lengthened and become more frequent in recent years.
Víctor Santana shows the batteries attached to the solar panels. Nicole Acevedo/NBC News
Government officials said the ongoing privatization of the power grid under Luma Energy and the recently announced Genera PR partnership will improve electricity supply.
They each took over the island’s electricity transmission and distribution system and its power-generating units, which belonged to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the bankrupt public company solely responsible for power generation. on American territory.
Luma Energy said it has reduced its outage rate by 30% over the past year and has 251 federally funded projects to permanently rebuild the patched grid after Hurricanes Maria and Fiona.
“Our patience is at an end”
Luma is expected to present a proposal on how to permanently rebuild Puerto Rico’s energy system, which will go through a public comment period, hearings and approval by the island’s Energy Office.
“In reality, our system can be completely rebuilt in our lifetime,” Velázquez said. During this process, people must advocate for the widest possible integration of renewables into our system, “unless we want to wait another 20 years to accelerate it.”
Genera PR is expected to officially start operations in July. It has a 10-year contract to operate, maintain and dismantle the island’s power generating units, which are on average around 45 years old and are mostly fossil fuel-based.
As Puerto Rico seeks to transition to renewable energy, Genera PR will help provide “significant savings for consumers and businesses, improve reliability, and reduce the environmental impact of an aging heat generation system,” said said Wes Edens, president and CEO of Genera Das. PR parent company New Fortress announced last week.
Vila fears that Genera’s 10-year contract “will set us back in our transition to renewable energy, because we will essentially extend the life of these fossil fuel power plants”.
In Trujillo Alto, Rojas is part of a group of more than 30 people who plan to buy roofing panels together through a cooperative with the help of CAMBIO and other groups.
Rojas said his goal was to get 60 people to join the effort.
“Our power is cut in the afternoon, at night, sometimes several times a week,” Rojas said. “Our patience is at an end.”
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