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Puerto Rico Chooses Clean Energy 3 Years After Maria

Panels going up in Cano Martin Pena

NRDC

With everything happening around the world, it’s understandable if we missed a bit of good news in late August, but the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (“Energy Bureau”) reaffirmed the island’s path towards clean energy and climate resiliency. Even though in early 2019 Puerto Rico committed to 100% renewable energy by 2050 and no coal after 2028, much uncertainty remained about how they would get there (or indeed whether they would start down that path at all). Under a push from the US Department of Energy, instead of taking advantage of the plentiful and affordable solar energy, Puerto Rico seemed destined to switch their electric generating plants from petroleum to natural gas, which would have set up an inevitable and costly additional transition from gas to renewables in the near future.

Three years ago Hurricane Maria, a deadly category 5 hurricane, devastated Puerto Rico. The intensity of the hurricane and the relatively poor shape of the island’s infrastructure set the stage for a devastating humanitarian crisis. The electricity infrastructure that supports the entire island was devastated, resulting in the longest blackout in US history and one of the longest worldwide. Puerto Rico spent over eleven months without power. Phones and water infrastructure were also severely damaged.

A year after the hurricane, I wrote about the desperation I felt knowing that my family on the island was in grave danger and I couldn’t be there to help. Caribbean islands are used to dealing with strong storms, but Hurricane Maria (like Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Dorian) proved to be a much different kind of storm. NRDC, like many other institutions, committed to help Puerto Rico recover. Working directly with affected communities we began helping them become more climate resilient by using distributed clean energy to power critical infrastructure. These efforts became demonstration projects for the kind of resilient and clean electric system Puerto Ricans want.

Solar panels at Vieques

NRDC

Finally, in late August 2020, almost 3 years after Hurricane Maria, the Energy Bureau issued a final order in the Integrated Resources Planning or IRP proceeding for the Puerto Rico Energy Power Authority (PREPA). This energy planning proceeding was not only Puerto Rico’s first, it would also determine the island’s energy transition after Hurricane Maria. Would Puerto Rico move directly to renewable energy after mostly depending on petroleum for electricity or would it transition to fracked gas and maintain its dependence on imported fossil fuels? The order was in fact a win for moving toward a bright clean energy future for Puerto Rico—confirming Puerto Rico’s clean energy law and setting the stage for a rapid transition to renewable energy.

The Energy Bureau rejected the preferred option from PREPA, which was a plan that would significant expand gas generation and grid investment, in favor of a more affordable solar energy and battery storage plan in the short term. The order sets the stage for at least 3.5 GW of solar and 1.36 GW of battery storage by 2025. PREPA had also suggested dividing the island into eight mini grids, which would be a very innovative step. The Energy Bureau suggested moving forward with one of those and studying its effectiveness. However, the order does allow PREPA to continue efforts underway to transform some existing generation to imported liquefied natural gas, while it rejected all the additional gas PREPA had proposed.

Sunny Puerto Rico

NRDC

For Puerto Rico, this should be the beginning of the island’s transition to renewable energy and climate resiliency. After years of uncertainty, the course has been set by legislation and implemented through regulation. Potential stumbling blocks still loom as plans must go through the Financial Oversight Board, which has become the ultimate decision maker in the island. Additionally, Puerto Rico is handing over management of its transmission and distribution system to a new entity called Luma Energy and some remain concerned about that transition. Still, three years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico appears firmly headed towards a sustainable and resilient energy future. And if Puerto Rico can rebuild itself as a model of sustainability and climate resiliency, so can the rest of the world.

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