Puerto Rico must find a way to reduce harmful emissions after EPA identifies the sources

Wind, solar, and battery storage resources offer practical solutions.

An utility crew attempts to repair power lines that were knocked over when Hurricane Maria passed through Corozal, Puerto Rico in September 2017. CREDIT:  Joe Raedle/Getty Images
An utility crew attempts to repair power lines that were knocked over when Hurricane Maria passed through Corozal, Puerto Rico in September 2017. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and destroyed the island’s entire electric grid, new visions for the grid emerged. Renewable energy advocates argued that the extensive damage gave Puerto Rico the perfect opportunity to rebuild its failed grid to be greener and more resilient.

Four months later, a large percentage of the island is still without power. Electric grid repairs so far have focused mainly on restoring power, not on creating a cleaner grid. This strategy, however, makes sense to residents who have been living without power since September; most of them don’t care about the origin of the electricity as long as it powers up their refrigerator and air conditioning, and allows the local water system to operate.

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“When it’s been more than a hundred days without power, I’ve seen two different reactions from people. There are people just wanting to get electricity no matter at what cost or no matter how it’s produced,” Adriana Gonzalez, environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Puerto Rico, told ThinkProgress. And “there are other people who have started to understand the energy issue because of their lack of power. Since we’ve been giving out solar lights, people have a better understanding of how solar power works and it’s easier to convince them that clean energy solutions are the way to go.”

After electricity fully returns to the island — which experts estimate could take until May — officials at the government-owned electric utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), and planners can begin to focus on building a more resilient grid with a clean energy component. Government officials are already investigating the feasibility of building microgrids on the island.

An additional motivating factor for Puerto Rico to incorporate a greener grid will be a requirement for the island to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean air standards under the sulfur dioxide provisions of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS).

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to set air quality standards for sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, particulates, and ground level ozone — common pollutants resulting from burning fuel oil and coal for electricity.

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In late December, the EPA identified two areas in Puerto Rico with extremely high levels of harmful sulfur dioxide pollution: a region around the capital city of San Juan and a region along the southern coast near Salinas. These “fence-line communities” — highly populated communities adjacent to large oil-fired power plants — are bearing the brunt of high concentrations of sulfur dioxide. The municipalities in the San Juan area are home to hundreds of thousands of people; tens of thousands of residents live in the areas of Salinas targeted by the EPA for sulfur dioxide emissions reduction.

The designations mean these two zones are in violation of EPA’s Clean Air Act standards and require Puerto Rico to submit a plan showing how it plans to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by October 2019. These areas must meet the standards no later than April 2023.

Historically, the island has had major problems with sulfur dioxide pollution due to its reliance on heavy fuel oil and coal for electricity generation, a process that often spews high concentrations of the pollutant into nearby communities. Sulfur dioxide is linked to worsened asthma symptoms, tightening of the bronchial tubes, and other respiratory problems as well as heart attacks.

As Puerto Rico rebuilds, it’s important for officials to incorporate the advantages brought by wind, solar, and battery storage resources, according to Zachary Fabish, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club. “Fuel oil is not a clean way to generate electricity. You have a lot of sulfur dioxide emissions. You also have particulate matter emissions and carbon dioxide emissions,” he said in an interview.

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Not only does burning heavy fuel oil cause negative local health impacts, it also contributes to global climate change. “If you have a problem with sulfur dioxide, the solution to that is also something that helps you with climate issues,” Fabish said.

Meeting the EPA standards for sulfur dioxide will not be cheap. The agency has grant money and technical assistance available to Puerto Rico to address sulfur dioxide. “We will be there to provide that support,” Stefanie Gera of EPA Region 2, which includes Puerto Rico, said in an email to ThinkProgress.

“We are positioned to help re-build Puerto Rico’s air-monitoring system, for example,” Gera said. The agency provides regular funding for state air programs and plans to work with the government of Puerto Rico and companies to provide technical assistance and resources to assist in achieving the island’s air quality goals.

The EPA said it expects Puerto Rico’s state implementation plan will require additional emission reductions from generation facilities owned by PREPA, either through fuel switching, add-on controls, or limits on operation.

Assistance from the EPA represents a drop in the bucket of what Puerto Rico will need to meet these standards. Finding alternatives to the island’s ubiquitous oil-fired plants will take time and money. The island has several solar photovoltaic facilities but gets nearly 50 percent of its power from oil and only about 3 percent from solar. Renewable power developers have tried to build plants on the island but have encountered great difficulties, Kerinia Cusick, co-founder of the Center for Renewables Integration wrote in a blog post after Hurricane Maria struck the island.

Earlier this week, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to sell the assets of PREPA to the private sector. Keeping the electric utility in the hands of the government is “a great burden for our people, who today are hostage to its deficient service and high costs,” the governor said. Because PREPA is bankrupt, a judge will have to approve Rosselló’s plans, according to the Associated Press.

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During a Tuesday Senate hearing on electric grid performance, Allison Clements, president of consulting firm Goodgrid LLC, said that privatizing the utility might help with “bringing in the expertise that can really provide that innovative, new model grid.”

But privatizing PREPA is not politically popular in Puerto Rico. Rosselló has submitted to the Puerto Rico legislature a bill that would eliminate the Puerto Rico Energy Commission and substitute it by a Public Service Commission, whose members would be appointed by the governor. “We fail to see how any investor would put money into Puerto Rico with a regulatory system like that proposed by Gov. Rosselló,” Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told The Bond Buyer.

“Puerto Rico’s new electrical system should be built on transparent, flexible, distributed, equitable, resilient, affordable and efficient solutions including community grids, through which citizens can be more independent of PREPA and be more involved in producing their own power,” Ramon Cruz, a member of the Sierra Club’s national board of directors and a former commissioner of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, wrote in an op-ed last October for The Hill.

Whether PREPA is privatized or not, massive amounts of federal aid plus a commitment to proper management could put Puerto Rico on track toward a resilient grid in the next decade or so — a tall order for a Trump administration that has shown an unwillingness to provide Puerto Rico with the financial assistance it needs.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a bill in November to rebuild and modernize the infrastructure of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with a massive federal investment of $146 billion. The bill allots $13 billion in additional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding for the rebuilding of the territories’ electric grids with “more modern, resilient technologies.” However, the chances of this bill, which enjoys strong support in the Puerto Rican community, moving forward in Congress are slim.

Actually getting the necessary aid to the island is already proving to be a challenge, in fact. A billion-dollar emergency loan approved by Congress to help Puerto Rico deal with the effects of Maria has been temporarily withheld by federal officials who say the territory is not facing a cash shortage like it has stated in recent months.

Officials with FEMA and the Treasury Department said in a letter sent last week to the director of the island’s fiscal agency that Puerto Rico has had a cash balance exceeding $1.5 billion in the nearly four months since the storm, the Associated Press reported. Federal officials also noted Puerto Rico released documents in late December showing it had nearly $7 billion available in cash.

“Right after the hurricane happened, President Trump was saying a lot of nice things about debt-forgiveness for Puerto Rico,” Fabish said. “The really unfortunate thing is that this administration and its allies in Congress have not only failed to do what is required to help these people who are, of course, Americans. But you look at the tax bill that treats Puerto Rico for certain excise tax purposes as a foreign country — this is punitive.”

Changes to the island’s electrical system could speed up recovery from future storms that strike Puerto Rico. Localized power grids can operate independently from the main, centralized grid when the traditional grid is not functional. The ability to act autonomously strengthens a power system’s reliability and resilience, and protects critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, water treatment facilities, and police stations.

Distributed generation is gaining in popularity around the world. While Denmark leads the world in installed distributed generation, the second country on that list — Cuba — is a Caribbean island that gets hit by even more hurricanes than Puerto Rico. In Cuba, 42 percent of its generation capacity comes from distributed sources, an extremely high proportion that has helped the island recover more quickly from tropical storms.

Responding to widespread damage from hurricanes, Cuba installed large amounts of distributed generation in the 2000s, according to a new Environmental Defense Fund report. Unfortunately, Cuba mainly uses heavily-polluting fuel oil to drive its electric sector, a path Puerto Rico would not want to follow if it hoped to meet the EPA standards for sulfur dioxide.

In early January, Rosselló released a draft of new regulations that will govern the development and operation of cleaner-operating microgrids. According to the proposal, a microgrid would consist of generation assets and distribution infrastructure. They would have energy storage assets and advanced distribution technologies to serve demand in a region under normal operating and usage conditions.

The prolonged outages caused by Hurricane Maria highlighted the need to foster the creation of microgrids as a means of delivering energy services to customers in need, according to the proposal. Because microgrids can operate in an “islanded” mode, disconnected from the electric grid system, they are able to independently provide electric service during grid outage periods or interruptions.

PREPA workers guide a utility pole raised with a crane to repair a downed electric transmission line in Ponce, Puerto Rico on November 29, 2017. CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images
PREPA workers guide a utility pole raised with a crane to repair a downed electric transmission line in Ponce, Puerto Rico on November 29, 2017. CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images

Microgrids can also contribute to rapid restoration of service, as there are areas where power could be restored quicker by the deployment of microgrids rather than waiting for re-connection to the grid, according to the proposal.

Making Puerto Rico’s electric grid more green and robust will improve local residents’ health but will also cost less, according to Jim Marston, vice president of clean energy for the Environmental Defense Fund. One path will be decentralized grids that can solve several problems at once: reduce local air pollution, improve resiliency, and give local control over power production and distribution, he told ThinkProgress.

According to Peter Fox-Penner, a professor at Boston University and author of the book, Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid, and the Future of Electric Utilities, microgrids are not a substitute for the electric grid. Many people think that microgrids don’t need poles and wires. But if they serve more than one building, they will use the same grid as everyone else uses, Fox-Penner wrote in an November 2017 article on Smithsonian.com.

“The only logical way for Puerto Rico — and every other storm-prone electric system — to become a series of resilient and clean microgrids,” said Fox-Penner said, “is to first get the entire grid functioning and then to create sections that can separate themselves and operate independently when trouble hits.”