Plagued by Daily Blackouts, Puerto Ricans Are Calling for an Energy Revolution. Will the Biden Administration Listen?

Eddie Ramirez has never understood why his government doesn’t more aggressively pursue renewable energy. 

When Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico in September 2017, shredding the energy grid and knocking out power for nearly all the island’s 3.4 million residents for months on end, Casa Sol—Ramirez’s five-bedroom bed and breakfast—was one of the only buildings in San Juan with working electricity, with 30 solar panels bolted to its roof.

When a large fire this June at an electrical substation in San Juan plunged more than 800,000 Puerto Rican homes into darkness and knocked out power to another 330,000 the following week, Casa Sol’s lights stayed on, even as its neighbors lost power. 

And when a series of equipment failures and poor maintenance led to cascading power outages across the island in August, September and October, leaving hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans without electricity for days at a time and prompting calls for Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi to resign, Ramirez and his solar-powered hotel carried on, business as usual.

“We don’t even know when it happens,” Ramirez said of the blackouts, which have become a daily part of life for many Puerto Ricans since June, when the private company LUMA Energy took over the island’s electricity transmission system.

With Puerto Rico’s grid still in shambles four years after Maria’s landfall, and $12.4 billion in federal aid earmarked to help repair the territory’s electrical systems and jumpstart its economy, many Puerto Ricans, like Ramirez, see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine the island’s tattered power system as a modern grid powered by clean energy and far better at withstanding the worsening threats of the climate crisis.

But many Puerto Ricans worry their political leaders are squandering that opportunity by planning to rebuild the electricity grid with natural gas power plants that continue to emit greenhouse gases and feed lengthy transmission lines that are vulnerable to natural disasters.

Puerto Rico is especially prone to power outages. It’s decades-old grid, held together by patchwork repairs, has long left the United States’ largest territory vulnerable to the natural disasters the island faces on a relatively regular basis.

Not only does Puerto Rico sit on an active fault line, it also occupies a hurricane alley that scientists say will see more frequent and destructive storms as the planet warms. And when major storms or earthquakes hit the island, hundreds of thousands of people can lose power all at once if a key transmission line or any of the island’s handful of power plants gets damaged. 

Energy experts have said that spreading out smaller, independent grids, and powering them with a combination of renewable energy and battery storage could help the territory save money and avoid the island-wide blackouts seen in the wake of Maria and the major earthquakes of January 2020.

Residents agreed with that reasoning. In 2019, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico passed a law that requires Puerto Rico to produce 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, by 2050. Known as the Energy Public Policy Act, or Act 17, the legislation also requires the territory to implement a host of aggressive benchmarks, including obtaining 40 percent of the island’s electricity from renewable sources by 2025 and eliminating coal-fired power by 2028.

That leaves the territory’s government-owned public utility—the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA—just four more years to drastically increase its renewable energy portfolio if it’s going to hit its first benchmark. And residents like Ramirez are growing increasingly skeptical that the utility, and the menagerie of decision-makers now involved in a complex budget process, are taking those mandates seriously. That includes a financial oversight board—appointed by Congress and President Barack Obama in 2016 as part of the utility’s bankruptcy plan—which has broad control over the territory’s budgetary decisions, has little accountability to Puerto Rico’s lawmakers and has shown early opposition to renewable energy projects.

As of last year, the island’s electricity grid drew just 2.5 percent of its power from renewable sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It’s a fact that angry Congress members brought up at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing earlier this month, as they grilled PREPA leadership and the CEO of LUMA Energy, which now manages and maintains the utility’s transmission lines and other energy distribution equipment.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat and the chair of the committee, accused PREPA and LUMA of “foot dragging” when it came to the implementation of Act 17, making it “unlikely that these renewable energy goals will be met.”

Grijalva, along with other high-profile lawmakers with ties to Puerto Rico, like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have called on the Biden administration to step in and ensure that federal aid going to Puerto Rico helps the territory reach its renewable energy goals. In January, President Biden signed executive orders that pledged to elevate climate change and environmental justice to the top of the administration’s agenda.

Both Fernando Gil-Enseñat, president of PREPA’s governing board, and Wayne Stensby, LUMA’s CEO, responded that PREPA and LUMA were working fast and in compliance with the law to implement new renewable energy projects, as they prepare to begin major repairs to the grid.

“People are trying to portray us as anti-solar and it’s absolutely not true.” Stensby told the committee members.

But Ruth Santiago, an environmental attorney and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, doesn’t buy those arguments. At the committee hearing, she pointed to documents filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that showed that the utility was not dedicating any federal aid to renewable energy projects and planning to use a large portion of it to expand the island’s natural gas infrastructure, including building multiple new gas-fired power plants.

LUMA and PREPA “want to rebuild the old 20th century transmission system that will be knocked down by the next hurricane,” Santiago told the committee members. “That’s taxpayer money to the tune of $9.6 billion or more that will be wasted.”

The Push for Radical Change

To better understand Puerto Ricans’ desire for radical change, just look at the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Santiago said.

With wind speeds around 155 miles per hour, the Category 4 storm ripped roofs off homes, uprooted trees and knocked down power lines and cell towers. Later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would report that for at least three months, nearly all 3.4 million people living on the island were without power, in what amounted to the largest blackout in U.S. history and the second largest globally.

Workers repairing power lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in a mountainous region of Puerto Rico in May, 2018. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Workers repairing power lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in a mountainous region of Puerto Rico in May, 2018. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In fact, electricity wouldn’t be restored in some regions of the U.S. territory for nearly a year, forcing many Puerto Ricans to rely on gasoline-fired generators that buzzed clamorously through the night and filled the streets with strong and hazardous odors. Residents complained about standing in line for upwards of 10 hours for fuel to power their generators, only to get turned away because supplies ran out.

It was “by far the most destructive hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in modern times,” federal officials reported, and the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, behind Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017. With much of the electrical grid and more than 786,000 homes in need of repairs, Hurricane Maria caused a record $90 billion in damages, easily eclipsing the previous record-holder, Hurricane Georges in 1998, which caused about $5 billion in damages.

U.S. researchers commissioned by the commonwealth estimated that 2,975 people in Puerto Rico perished either directly or indirectly because of Maria, with 22 percent more people losing their lives during the first six months after the storm than would have had the hurricane not struck.

Santiago had her own scare when she found herself racing against time to find ice to keep her mother’s insulin from spoiling. Realizing after two days that the power wasn’t returning, she drove down streets littered with debris and fallen trees, finding store after store closed and without power. She followed a tip and finally found ice after driving an hour north from her hometown of Salinas to San Juan, where the Puerto Rico Medical Center was running on a backup generator.

Already overburdened by major debt, high unemployment and poverty rates and a high cost of living, Maria’s devastation amplified problems all across Puerto Rico.

But the destruction also brought the island together, said Tomás Torres-Placa, a licensed engineer, city planner and a member of PREPA’s governing board, who represents consumer interests. “Everybody was there—the rich, the middle class and the poor— we lived the same condition,” he said. “And that made you rethink Puerto Rico.”

Then, in the summer of 2018, a coalition of lawmakers, environmental and community organizations and several trade groups got together to start a series of talks that would ultimately turn into the foundation of Act 17, Puerto Rico’s 100-percent clean energy law.

Rattled by Maria, the groups wanted to transform Puerto Rico’s energy system, making sure it could stand up to the next disaster and prevent any future loss of life as a result of a lack of electricity. They also wanted to make it less reliant on federal aid and expensive imported fuels, less harmful to the environment and more affordable and equitable.

In the end, Torres-Placa said, the groups decided that renewable energy was the best way to go. “Puerto Rico doesn’t have gas, Puerto Rico doesn’t have oil, Puerto Rico doesn’t have coal. All Puerto Rico has is sun, wind and waves,” he said. 

That same year, Santiago, along with several other community and environmental groups, had formed a separate coalition that also sought to transform Puerto Rico in similar ways using renewable energy. Their proposal, called “Queremos Sol”—or We Want Sun—aims to use the incoming federal disaster aid to build solar systems on almost every roof on the island.

Several studies have shown that that plan, though ambitious, is technically and financially feasible. A 2020 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research center within the U.S. Department of Energy, estimated that rooftop solar could generate roughly four times the amount of electricity used in Puerto Rican homes that year. And a study conducted earlier this year by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy research firm, said that the $9.6 billion in federal aid could be “cost-effectively” leveraged to build enough rooftop solar to generate 75 percent of all of Puerto Rico’s electricity within 15 years.

In March of this year, Santiago was appointed to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, where she’s charged with providing the Biden administration with recommendations on how to address current and historic environmental injustices in the country. The month prior, President Biden had signed a series of executive orders that included directing federal agencies to take a “whole-of-government approach to the climate crisis” and promising to design environmental programs to explicitly benefit disadvantaged communities.

One of the recommendations Santiago included in her report was for the Biden administration to adopt the Queremos Sol proposal for Puerto Rico. “I think it would be a test of the Biden administration’s commitment to actually tackling the climate crisis and addressing environmental injustice,” she said.

Years of Corruption Have Left Puerto Ricans Wary

When the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico passed Act 17 in April 2019, it also imbued its energy regulator with new powers to enforce the law’s mandates. And in the summer of 2020, the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau took its first major action to do just that.

It ordered Puerto Rico’s public utility to revise and resubmit its long-term blueprint, called an Integrated Resource Plan, which maps out how PREPA will run itself over the next two decades. The plan, the bureau said in its order, was not aligned with the mandates of Act 17, since it relied heavily on new natural gas infrastructure, despite cheaper renewable energy options.

The bureau also ordered PREPA to develop at least 3.75 gigawatts of solar energy capacity and 1.5 gigawatts of battery storage by 2023, more than double the amount the utility had proposed in its original filing. 

For those fighting for a clean economy on the island, it was a rare victory: A Puerto Rican government agency was carrying out its duty after years of blatant mismanagement and political corruption. Just a year prior, then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló stepped down, after hundreds of thousands of livid Puerto Ricans swarmed the streets of San Juan, calling on him to resign.

Messages between Rosselló and his inner circle that people found insulting and in poor taste, including homophobic slurs and misogynistic overtones, had been leaked to the public. One especially disturbing message showed top Puerto Rico officials poking fun at the number of bodies that had piled up at the morgues after Hurricane Maria. Several top officials, including Puerto Rico’s former secretary of education, Julia Keleher, were also arrested that week on charges of embezzling $15.5 million in federal funding and steering it to unqualified, politically connected contractors.

In December 2020, the energy bureau learned that PREPA was using a separate long-term plan, not the one it had shown the regulator, to bid for federal aid from FEMA. That plan, which PREPA called its 10-year infrastructure plan, dedicated $850 million of those federal funds to build a dozen new gas-fired electricity generation units all across Puerto Rico, with zero of the aid going toward new renewable energy capacity. The energy bureau threatened to slap PREPA with a fine of up to $25,000.

The discovery enraged many Puerto Ricans, including Santiago, who said it was just another example showing that Puerto Rican leadership had been “captured” by the gas industry, and was more concerned with lining the pockets of political connections than with doing what’s best for the Puerto Rican people.

Those tensions rose to the surface again this summer, as LUMA Energy took over PREPA’s electricity transmission system, which includes power lines and other electrical distribution equipment. Selling the system to a private buyer was part of a broader federally mandated scheme set up by Congress in 2016 to rein in the island’s roughly $120 billion debt, including $9 billion owed by the public utility, and help pay back American creditors.

Under Puerto Rico’s current governor, Pedro Pierluisi, PREPA’s governing board took just 43 minutes to approve LUMA’s contract last year. 

In June, hundreds of protesters marched down the streets to protest LUMA’s takeover, demanding that the Puerto Rican government cancel the contract. Union leaders criticized the contract for not providing work assurances for existing PREPA employees. Thousands of utility line workers, who are in charge of maintaining the island’s grid, lost their jobs or opted to transfer to other departments, choosing guaranteed work in the government over the risk of going through LUMA’s hiring process. 

Others criticized the contract for lacking transparency and accountability, and said it would put money in the pockets of LUMA executives, while making life more expensive for everyday Puerto Ricans. One analysis, by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, estimated that the provisions in LUMA’s contract would increase utility rates on the island to as high as 30 cents per kilowatt hour, more than double the average amount that customers pay on the U.S. mainland. LUMA has requested to raise electricity rates several times to help compensate for costs incurred during its transition. That’s despite the Puerto Rican government paying the company a fixed annual fee of $115 million.

LUMA’s parent companies, Canada-based ATCO and Houston-based Quanta Services, created the company in 2020 specifically so they could bid for the Puerto Rico contract. Many critics have pointed out that ATCO and Quanta Services specialize in pipelines and natural gas utilities and infrastructure—not renewable energy.

Power outages have also surged under LUMA’s watch—becoming a daily occurrence since June. And service restoration times have worsened, doubling to an average of 5 hours and 23 minutes in the months since its takeover, according to data posted by LUMA and analyzed by the University of Puerto Rico. Residents have also reported voltage fluctuations that have damaged or destroyed home appliances and electronics. 

Many Puerto Ricans have blamed those problems on a lack of skilled workers—just 250 LUMA employees qualified to repair the grid were working at the time the company took over, according to media reports. LUMA now reports having around 900 line workers on staff, but more than 3,000 of the 4,200 PREPA employees eligible to transition to LUMA didn’t do so, according to a letter from Congress members.

In late September, more than 178,000 Puerto Ricans were without power after a gas-fired power plant near San Juan malfunctioned. It was the latest in a spate of outages caused by equipment failures and maintenance issues in recent months that left hundreds of thousands of residents in the dark, some for days at a time. Shortly after, the chair of PREPA’s governing board and its executive director resigned, the latest casualties of the territory’s ongoing energy saga.

Things have gotten so bad that people are calling it “Hurricane LUMA,” Santiago said.

On Oct. 15, more than 4,000 Puerto Ricans marched down a main highway, blocking traffic to San Juan, in protest of the ongoing outages. The week prior, just a few blocks from Eddie Ramirez’s bed and breakfast, hundreds of residents marched down the road that leads to La Fortaleza, the nearly 500-year-old building where Puerto Rico’s governor resides. It was the same road they marched down two years ago when they ousted Gov. Rosselló from office. Now they are calling on Gov. Pierluisi to resign.

People are “extremely upset” with Puerto Rico’s leadership, Ramirez said. “And still, they don’t see the importance of renewable energy.”

Thousands of Puerto Rican residents used their cell phones to light the way during a protest on October 15 against LUMA Energy and the ongoing blackouts on the island.

‘An Across-the-Board Failure of the Biden Administration’

In the coming months, FEMA will decide exactly which projects will receive funding from the $9.6 billion in aid appropriated for repairing Puerto Rico’s grid. This month, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced FEMA’s first disbursement of $7.1 million to the territory.

Already, PREPA and LUMA have submitted to the agency dozens of individual repairs and upgrades for review that together make up about $2.8 billion. Except for a small sum to repair a hydroelectric dam that provides less than 1 percent of the island’s power, none of the proposed projects so far involves renewable energy.

Some energy experts have said that is a far bigger indicator of how LUMA and PREPA intend to rebuild Puerto Rico’s grid than anything the companies have said publicly regarding renewable energy, and that under its current course it’s likely Puerto Rico will rely on natural gas for decades to come.

New natural gas infrastructure is meant to last at least 30 years, probably saddling Puerto Ricans with the costs of such development, said Michael O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for Energy Innovation, a clean energy advocacy group. “We are in an era of rapid technology improvement on the clean energy side,” he said. “What I would be thinking about is: Is now the right time to be making a multi-billion dollar bet on natural gas as the best solution?”

When residents and other legal parties involved in the public comment process complained to FEMA, saying the agency wasn’t exploring alternative proposals that would include renewable energy, FEMA officials said they were only responsible for approving the proposals that come before the agency. In other words, if Puerto Rico isn’t proposing any renewable energy projects, it’s not the agency’s fault.

But Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School and the former director of the school’s Environmental Law Center, said that’s not entirely true. Federal law requires FEMA to take a broader approach and ensure that it spends federal money in ways that support U.S. environmental goals, he said. That includes considering Puerto Rico’s renewable energy law, as well as the Biden administration’s January guidance on climate change and environmental justice. 

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Under the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock federal law that requires agencies to consider how major projects would cumulatively affect the environment, FEMA must also prepare a full environmental impact statement for Puerto Rico’s proposals, which it didn’t do, Parenteau said. Instead, FEMA assessed the projects with a narrower study meant to streamline disaster-related repairs, he said, and incorrectly concluded that there would be “no significant impact” from rebuilding Puerto Rico’s fossil fuel-based energy system.

“It’s an across-the-board failure of the Biden administration despite all these promises, despite these executive orders and all the rest,” Parenteau said. “When it comes to execution, at least in terms of Puerto Rico, something is badly out of whack.”

The White House declined to comment on the FEMA funds with regards to Biden’s January executive orders.

As for Santiago, she’s continuing to hold onto the hope that the record amount of federal aid coming into Puerto Rico can be used to spur an energy revolution on the island. But with LUMA expecting to begin its reconstruction work next year, and with Biden administration officials remaining mostly unresponsive to her calls, that hope is starting to dim.

“It would be such a lost opportunity” if the Biden administration allows PREPA’s current gas-heavy proposal to move forward, she said. “If they do that, I quit. I will probably have to rethink my participation in the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.”

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