Solar energy offers Puerto Ricans a lifeline but remains an elusive target

As Puerto Rico reeled from its worst power outage in months, the one that left virtually all of the island’s 1.5 million customers without electricity for days, the town of Adjuntas was an oasis.

One Thursday morning in early April, with the school closed, children filled seats in an air-conditioned cinema in a community center, a pizzeria prepared its kitchen for the lunch rush, and the local barber greeted customers in looking for a quick hairstyle.

The contrast shows why Adjuntas, a community of about 18,000 people in the densely forested mountains of central Puerto Rico, has become a showcase for how solar power could address one of the island’s most troublesome problems: a energy grid that has struggled to recover later Hurricane Maria pretty much wiped it out in 2017.

Thanks in large part to the work of Casa Pueblo, a non-profit organization working for conservation, some 400 homes and businesses in Adjuntas have solar power, including more than a dozen shops connected to a small solar-powered grid. With backup batteries, the systems can operate even in the event of a blackout, keeping business open and transforming the organization’s headquarters into a haven for people using medical devices that need to be powered.

“When you have energy security, you take the burden off the shoulders of the employees and families who come to the company,” said Ángel Irizarry Feliciano, owner of Lucy’s Pizza, which continued to operate during the power outage. “It was a relief to be able to continue to provide service to our people without interruption or to have to reduce our hours.”

But the situation in Adjuntas also highlights the extent to which the rest of Puerto Rico must move towards renewable energy, despite all the seemingly obvious reasons: the island’s long, sunny days; its need to import all other fuels, which makes electricity generation expensive; and, of course, its constantly failing power grid.

Although the number of solar installations has increased in recent years, solar power only accounts for 2.5% of Puerto Rico’s total energy production, according to government data. The rest comes from plants powered by imported natural gas, coal and oil, with another sliver from wind power.

Many Puerto Ricans can’t afford to spend the $ 27,000 a typical solar power system could cost, and the government – emerging from unprecedented bankruptcy in March – has only begun setting concrete renewable energy targets in 2019. adding solar panels to their homes have been discouraged by Puerto Rico’s chaotic state of finances, particularly the proposal to impose a burden on solar customers to help support public service.

The installations of Casa Pueblo are paid for with money from the foundations, both in Puerto Rico and abroad, and with the sale of coffee grown in Adjuntas. Since Hurricane Maria, the organization has expanded its push for solar energy adoption to communities in other parts of the island.

“We need public policies to create a business model that focuses on helping you generate your power, not just one that provides energy,” said Arturo Massol Deyá, associate director of Casa Pueblo. “People are tired of constant power outages and their appliances breaking down.”

After the most recent outage, which began on April 6 after a fire at a power plant in the southwestern city of Guayanilla, power was not fully restored for four days. The closure of the island caused a cascade of problems: even the water was closed to many, hospitals had to resort to backup generators and schools and businesses closed.

The disruption resulted in protests and appeals to the government cancel your contract with Luma Energy, the private electricity company that took over the utility last June with a promise to restore the grid. Puerto Rico governor Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia rejected the idea. But the ongoing power outages, coupled with monthly electricity bills that have risen 46 percent over the past year, have increased frustration with the utility, which is run by a Canadian-American company with a 15-year contract signed on. Last year.

“While some politicians choose to ignore the state of the power grid that Luma has inherited and put the blame without facts, we will continue to focus on Puerto Rico’s energy future,” Luma said in a statement to the New York Times.

Puerto Rico has an ambition to do more with renewable energy. In 2019 the government approved a clean energy law which requires 100% of the island’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2050 and includes a promise to use federal money to build renewable energy projects that reach low-income communities.

The board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances has approved 18 renewable energy projects in March with the goal of increasing clean energy production to 23% of the island’s total by the end of 2024. In February, the US Department of Energy launched a two-year study on Porto’s clean energy options Rico. And the Federal Agency for Emergency Management and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have allocated 12 billion dollars to renew the island’s energy industry.

Even though he proposed such an ambitious target for renewable energy, the supervisory board raised the prospect of charge consumers who have solar panels in their homes making them pay for the electricity they generate.

Under the proposal, it was made as a way to help pay $ 9 billion in debt owed by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, new solar customers would have to pay for every kilowatt of solar power they generated. Since the proposal also included a plan to raise tariffs for conventional energy, it was scrapped in March by the governor. But solar energy advocates say they are concerned that as negotiations continue for a new deal, the charge – which some call the solar tax – could be revived.

“We have to find a way to deal with the debt,” said Francisco Berrios Portela, director of the energy policy program at Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Trade. “But it cannot be adding a tax on the generation produced by this type of system that we are promoting.”

Uncertainty about whether they will have to pay more taxes for a solar energy system in a home or business has dissuaded consumers such as María Lizardi Córdova, an accountant who lives in San Juan. Ms. Lizardi Córdova can see a neighbor’s solar panels from her bedroom window and she knows many other people in the neighborhood who have decided to invest in solar energy, but she thinks it is still too early to make the transition. alone.

“This is not the right time, and it has to do with all the uncertainty about any additional costs for solar energy and what my expenses would be,” said Ms. Lizardi Córdova. “The situation is complicated by debt.”

For Puerto Ricans with medical needs, such as refrigeration for insulin or power for dialysis machines, outages can be dangerous and the benefits of a solar-powered backup system are overwhelming.

In Adjuntas, Casa Pueblo runs a special project that provides solar panels to people with medical needs, such as Juan Molina Reyes, a farmer who grows plantains, coffee and oranges.

Mr. Molina Reyes’ 75-year-old father, Luis, had a stroke in August and is in need of respiratory assistance. He says he went through seven gas generators trying to keep his father’s oxygen concentrator running when the power grid went down.

That changed in February when Mr. Molina Reyes’ family received solar panels after seeking assistance from the charity. He said he felt lucky to have them.

“It was maddening to know that if the system failed me at any point, my father would die,” said Molina Reyes. “It was an uphill battle.”