Number of homes eligible for solar panel installation:12,000
Miriam Sierra Burgos will never forget the man who walked into her bakery in the small mountain town of Castañer, Puerto Rico, pleading for a days-old fritter. It was five days after Hurricane Maria passed, and Castañer, like the rest of the island, was without power. Supermarkets were out of food, and water had stopped flowing from taps.
“It’s no good; it’s cold,” Sierra said of the fritter. “And the person told me, ‘Miss, you don’t know what’s cold; hunger is cold. That’s food, and food is never cold. It’s never gone bad.’”
After him came people with medications to store in Sierra’s refrigerator, one of the few still running thanks to her generator. Then came residents of the nearby nursing home in search of power for their medical devices. As months passed without electricity, Sierra’s bakery became an ad hoc refuge, and neighbors traveled the island in search of scarce diesel to keep her generator running. Even the nearby hospital came to rely on her bakery to feed its staff and patients.
It was six months before Castañer was reconnected to the grid and nearly a year before electricity was officially restored to the entirety of the island. But the return of power was tenuous. More than five years after Maria and despite billions of dollars in allocated federal recovery funding, Puerto Rico’s electric system remains in a state of protracted disaster, its 30,000 miles of fragile power lines and antiquated oil-burning power plants plagued by regular outages and at the mercy of surging fuel prices. For the worst service in the US, Puerto Ricans pay more than double the average rate. The grid is particularly unstable in remote areas like Castañer, which goes dark as many as three times a week and where Sierra spends $1,200 a month on electricity, plus another $100 daily in fuel for her generator when it goes out.
So it was an easy sell when Maribel Hernandez Soto, a project manager with a nascent electric cooperative, approached Sierra with an offer of reliable and predictably priced power. The group, called Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña, aimed to use solar panels and eventually a nearby derelict hydroelectric dam to form a local grid capable of operating independently from the larger system. The first phase of the grid went live earlier this year, wiring together Sierra’s bakery, the post office across the street, an ice cream shop next door (nearly impossible to run on intermittent power), and a barbershop in whose back room, past the chairs and mirrors, sit a bank of batteries. Now, Sierra only notices the power is out because of the sound of nearby generators starting up. “Solar makes you feel safe,” she said.
In Puerto Rico, there is desire, need, policy, and money. So why is there so little progress?
In the years after Maria, renewable energy and solar in particular came to be seen as a solution to Puerto Rico’s energy woes. It was cheaper and cleaner than imported fossil fuels and, if deployed in a more distributed system of rooftop panels and regional grids, better able to withstand future storms. In 2019, Puerto Rico passed legislation mandating the island convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 and redesign the grid to be more resilient. Crucially, there was money available to make it happen: an unprecedented $12 billion in disaster recovery funds appropriated by Congress to rebuild the island’s energy system. With funding, policy, and public will aligned, everything would seem to be in place to make Puerto Rico a model for the transition to a renewable, resilient electric system.
That has yet to happen, and whether it will remains unclear. In the five years since Maria, most of the progress has come from individuals and communities desperate for reliable power using their own money or an assortment of philanthropy and grants. There are many such initiatives, from community microgrids like Castañer to solar-powered water filtration systems, emergency solar arrays for medical devices, and the 40,000 individuals who have gone out and bought panels and batteries themselves.
But the renovation of the larger grid has been excruciatingly slow. Less than 2 percent of the $9.5 billion allocated by FEMA for permanent restoration of the grid has been disbursed, according to data from the Puerto Rico Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency. Puerto Rico gets only 3 percent of its energy from renewables, nowhere near its policy targets. The only major new generation project to be built since Maria is the conversion of several diesel turbines to natural gas, and the island’s utility is pushing to use FEMA funds to build more. The grid remains so vulnerable that when Hurricane Fiona hit, five years after Maria almost to the day, it knocked power out to the entire island before it made landfall.
In Puerto Rico, there is desire, need, policy, and money. So why is there so little progress?
The rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s grid was slow from the start. The island’s utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), was effectively bankrupt when Maria hit and was overwhelmed by the extent of the damage. FEMA, coping with back-to-back disasters — hurricanes Harvey, Irma, then Maria in a matter of weeks — was overwhelmed, too. As the blackout dragged on, eventually becoming the longest in US history, it ramified across every aspect of life on the island with deadly consequences. Powerless cell towers impeded rescue and recovery efforts; water pumps stopped working, forcing people to turn to nearby rivers contaminated by shutdown sewage treatment plants; with medication spoiling and medical devices incapacitated, people turned to darkened hospitals unable to care for them. An estimated 3,000 people died.
- Five years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s electric grid is still prone to regular outages and extremely vulnerable to storms. Hurricane Fiona, a far weaker storm, knocked out power to the entire island in September.
- Puerto Ricans pay twice the US’s average rate for electricity for by far the worst service in the country.
- Over $3 billion in federal funds were spent restoring power after Maria, but a more permanent rebuilding of the grid was supposed to follow. Approximately $12 billion was allocated for it, but very little of it has been spent.
- Of the $9.5 billion allocated by FEMA for electric permanent work, less than 2 percent has been disbursed. Of the $3 billion in FEMA hazard mitigation grant funding allocated, 0.3 percent has been disbursed.
- After Maria, solar power was widely seen as a solution to high energy costs driven by the price of imported fuel and the grid’s vulnerability to storms. Approximately 40,000 people have installed solar panels on their roofs since the storm, and numerous communities and organizations have launched local solar projects.
- In 2019, Puerto Rico passed legislation mandating the island convert to 100 percent renewable energy — an opportunity to redesign the island’s energy system to be cleaner, cheaper, and more resilient. But Puerto Rico’s utility delayed the deployment of renewables and continues to push for using federal funds to build gas plants.
- In an effort to facilitate the recovery, the Department of Energy launched a project this year, funded by FEMA, to study the pathways to building the renewable, resilient grid mandated in Puerto Rico’s policies. However, the study isn’t binding. Observers and participants worry its findings will be ignored.
- Activists and lawmakers have asked FEMA to mandate funds be used for renewable energy, citing Puerto Rico’s policies, President Biden’s executive orders on climate, and a congressional mandate that FEMA fund “resilient” projects. FEMA says it lacks the authority to do so.
For Puerto Ricans, the blackout was a stark reminder of their historical neglect by the federal government. A territory, Puerto Rico lacks voting representation in Congress or general elections. The island’s autonomy was further constrained in 2016 when Congress passed Promesa, the law that created a process for restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt and placed its budget under the oversight of a presidentially appointed board popularly referred to as “la junta.” After Maria, then-President Donald Trump made Puerto Rico’s second-tier status explicit, saying it shouldn’t depend on the federal government and that FEMA can’t be there forever.
Power was finally restored in August 2018, 11 months after Maria hit, but it was a patch job. Lines had been reattached to damaged poles, and generators still powered sections of the island. A more permanent restoration of the grid was supposed to follow, but aid was held up in Congress, then by unprecedented restrictions placed on its disbursement by the Trump administration. Other delays followed. Reconstruction was to occur under a post-Hurricane Sandy program meant to speed recovery and rebuild structures to be more “resilient,” but FEMA changed its cost-assessment methodology, then changed it back, so an estimated budget wasn’t arrived at until September 2020. Meanwhile, PREPA was undergoing simultaneous bankruptcy proceedings and privatization; the result was that, in 2021, a completely new company, Luma, came in to manage the island’s grid and its reconstruction. President Joe Biden lifted the Trump-era restrictions shortly after taking office, but the recovery has still barely begun.
In February, the Biden administration announced its latest attempt to accelerate Puerto Rico’s grid recovery. It was a memorandum of understanding between Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, and the heads of the departments of Energy (DOE), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Homeland Security, of which FEMA is a part. At its heart was a study, called PR100, that aims to create a roadmap for building a resilient, renewable grid.
At the highest level, the energy transition is simple: swap combustion technologies like cars and gas heaters for electricity while switching the sources of electricity to renewables. Studies show it’s technically feasible and economically desirable nationally, and in 2020, the Department of Energy found that Puerto Rico could potentially meet all its residential consumption needs with rooftop solar alone. But refining those broad strokes to the level needed to start building involves answering some complex technical questions. What combination of storage, solar, wind, and other intermittent sources gives you reliable power? How much long-distance transmission do you need if more power is generated locally? Which grid design is most resilient to wind, mudslides, wildfire, or daily wear and tear? How do you define resilience, anyway?
In the US, these questions fall to utilities and their local regulators, which often lack the resources and financial incentive to pursue them. In 2017, when the Los Angeles City Council mandated a renewable grid by 2045, the utility hired the Department of Energy, which has the expertise but not usually the mandate, to come in and figure out how.
That study is the model for Puerto Rico’s, except in this case, FEMA will pay DOE as part of the Maria recovery effort. After several months of meeting with an advisory group of more than 80 people, DOE came up with four scenarios, ranging from highly centralized generation on one end to extremely distributed on the other. Nuclear was ruled out; a scenario where no solar was placed on scarce agricultural land was added at the behest of local activists. Over the next year and a half, these designs will be run through models testing how they fare under future climate conditions, population changes, electric vehicle adoption, energy efficiency measures, and future storms.
But it is, administration officials are careful to say, just a study. It isn’t a policy recommendation, and it isn’t binding. Decisions about disaster recovery in the US, like most building decisions, are made locally. Though it is a federal study of how to spend federal funds in alignment with both the Biden administration and Puerto Rico policies, making the plan a reality will fall to the same institutions that have managed the grid recovery so far. As one viewer of the PR100 announcement asked, who will be responsible for implementing its findings?
“The caveat certainly is we are not the decision makers for the transmission investments or the distribution investments on the systems,” a DOE official replied. “Implementation would ultimately be the responsibility of the government of Puerto Rico, the public utility, the regulators, and public support.”
It’s a treacherous stretch for energy policies, not just in Puerto Rico. A lot of money is at stake, and complex bureaucratic processes provide ample opportunity for derailment and delay. Leah Stokes, in her book Short Circuiting Policy, likens it to “organized combat” between various factions battling it out in regulatory trench warfare. Many observers of the last five years of grid reconstruction worry the findings will simply be ignored.
“DOE specifically said we are not going to cross the line of implementation; we’re just going to show you what could be, and we’ll stop there,” said Cecilio Ortiz Garcia, a professor of political science formerly of the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, now at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and an advisor on the study. “Well, you know, that’s great. That’s great. And I wish you luck. Because our previous experience is these records end up in the garbage.”