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Puerto Rico’s efforts towards renewable energy are met with resistance

Transitioning away from fossil fuels is proving challenging for the island.

Damaged wind turbines are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Naguabo, Puerto Rico on October 2, 2017. 
CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images
Damaged wind turbines are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Naguabo, Puerto Rico on October 2, 2017. CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images

A contentious Hill hearing over Puerto Rico’s energy future on Tuesday offered signs of the larger battle looming over the island’s transition to clean energy as it works to recover from Hurricane Maria. Environmental advocates are pushing for a shift to 100% renewable power, yet officials are struggling to provide a roadmap forward.

During the hearing, lawmakers and officials sparred back and forth over the future of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and the role of the island’s government-owned power company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Power company executives are fighting for a privatized, centralized grid reliant on natural gas.

“I’ve stressed to the committee since assuming this role that I wanted to hear from the many Puerto Rican voices,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), kicking off the hearing addressing the rebuilding and privatization of Puerto Rico’s electrical system. But those voices range wildly in their leanings, as do their allies in Congress.

José Ortiz, PREPA’s chief executive, pointed to the island’s “historic effort to transform its energy system” in the wake of Hurricane Maria, but noted that “the problem is that there is no consensus” between those supporting renewables and those more invested in fossil fuels.

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“That’s one of the big debates on the island right now,” elaborated Sergio Marxuach, policy director at the Puerto Rico-based nonprofit think tank Center for a New Economy (CNE).

Much of the hearing focused on the tension between the island’s energy goals and its present reality. When Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, the storm sparked the longest blackout in U.S. history. Schools shuttered and hospitals struggled to serve patients as the island’s electrical grid failed.

Recovery efforts have been sluggish. PREPA is bankrupt and, prior to Maria, the company represented the largest portion of Puerto Rico’s overall debt. In January 2018, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (PNP) announced that the power company would be privatized in order to address its debt. That plan has been widely panned by many Puerto Ricans, who fear PREPA’s sale won’t help mitigate a future disaster. Ortiz did little to counter those fears on Tuesday, as he admitted that the island is ill-prepared to deal with a second Maria-style storm.

“If you had the same kind of storm hitting Puerto Rico again, you’re going to have the same kind of result,” he said.

Proponents of renewable energy argue that the island’s problems — ranging from reliance on imports to the impacts of climate change — could be largely addressed by transitioning away from fossil fuels. And in recent months those efforts have ramped up.

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In March, Puerto Rico passed a bill designed to transform its economy by transitioning to renewable energy. Marketed by some as a Green New Deal-style transition for the island, the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act would see Puerto Rico running exclusively on renewable energy sources by 2050.

But the bill — which Rosselló has yet to sign — comes with a number of caveats. It includes a provision allowing waste-to-energy incineration to be counted as “clean,” something many climate advocates have deemed dubious. There is debate over whether waste energy constitutes renewable energy.

Costs are also an issue, as the bill attempts to mandate lower energy costs, something renewables proponents say will happen anyways as Puerto Rico shifts away from fossil fuels, which currently need to be imported, unlike the power generated by renewables.

Conversations about renewable energy aren’t new for the island. Long-standing institutions have been advocating for solar power for years, such as Casa Pueblo, a Puerto Rican-run nonprofit environmental watchdog. During Maria, Casa Pueblo maintained power thanks to the small organization’s solar panels. Later, Casa Pueblo’s staff provided aid to those left without electricity following the hurricane, including many Puerto Ricans on dialysis.

But Casa Pueblo’s grassroots efforts are very different from the government’s and environmental advocates in Puerto Rico have expressed concerns over “greenwashing” as officials tout renewables while simultaneously doubling down on support for natural gas.

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They have reason for concern. In February, a draft version of PREPA’s 2019 integrated resource plan (IRP) called for a “reliable and resilient” grid featuring a major shift towards solar power. But the IRP also called for three new liquified natural gas (LNG) import terminals, which Marxuach of CNE panned on Tuesday, arguing the emphasis relegated renewables to a “subordinate, secondary” role.

Democrats similarly homed in on the gap between PREPA’s plans and the government’s push for sustainability. “Why wouldn’t Puerto Rico focus on more renewables now?” asked Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY).

But Republicans laid out their support for fossil fuels during the hearing. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) panned the goal of 100% renewable energy as “just unrealistic” and pointed to natural gas as a superior power source for the island. Bruce Walker, the Energy Department’s assistant secretary, similarly argued that moving to all-renewables would slow hurricane recovery. Ortiz of PREPA also seemed to agree.

“The best partner for that transition [towards more renewable sources] is natural gas,” argued Ortiz.

With support for natural gas still strong among officials, Puerto Rico will likely face steep hurdles in meeting its transition goals. Meanwhile, the island’s problems are likely to mount. Puerto Rico is threatened by sea level rise and by worsening hurricanes supercharged by warming ocean waters.

But global warming went largely unmentioned until the last 20 minutes of the two hour-long hearing, when Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) argued for energy sources “that will be resilient in the face of climate change,” signaling the value of prioritizing renewables.

“[It’s] the right thing to do for our environment and our planet,” Neguse said.

Puerto Rico, however, won’t have much time to prepare before the threat of hurricanes return. Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1, with the island still far from recovery and unlikely to see immediate help — with Congress headed into a two-week recess, disaster aid talks collapsed on Tuesday as Democrats demanded more funding for Puerto Rico.