As power slowly returns to Puerto Rico in Hurricane Fiona’s wake, pressure is building to wean the island’s grid off its 97% dependence on fossils fuels—towards a climate-resilient distributed system that relies on renewables.
Fiona plunged most of the island’s 3.3 million people into darkness on September 18, and 349,000 homes and businesses remained without power 10 days later, Reuters reports. LUMA Energy, the private utility responsible since last year for keeping the lights on across Puerto Rico, said it expected to have power restored to 77 to 91% of customers by this Friday—if there was sufficient generation available. This sufficiency relies almost entirely on fossil fuels: 44% natural gas, 37% petroleum, and 17% coal—with renewables making up the remaining 3%, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.
Though power restoration has been slow, the pace is much faster than what followed Hurricane María in 2017, when it took the now-bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) 11 months to fully restore lights and running water to the beleaguered island.
Just how much LUMA’s success owes to greater competence remains unclear, Reuters says, noting that while María hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 249 kilometres per hour, Fiona was a Category 1 storm that clocked in at 136 kilometres per hour.
Catastrophic Damage, Profound Misery
But even those Category 1 conditions delivered catastrophic damage and profound misery to an island still struggling to recover from María, with pounding rain causing widespread flooding and mudslides. Up to 16 people may have died as a direct or indirect result of the storm, with at least four deaths linked to the power outage itself. Two people died in a house fire sparked by a candle, and another from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator, says the New York Times. The Associated Press reported one further death associated with the blackout, “a 70-year-old man who was burned to death after he tried to fill his generator with gasoline while it was running.”
Writing six days after Fiona made landfall, the Times testified to the weariness of many Puerto Ricans, fearful of another prolonged blackout, and angered by the fact that their monthly bills have “jumped from US$80 to more than $200 over the past year,” after LUMA started managing the grid. (PREPA still owns much of the island’s infrastructure.)
Utility Dive confirms the price hike, citing analysis from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), which found that customers are now paying “nearly double the rate they paid just two years ago.”
“The only way to stabilize rates and PREPA’s budget over the medium to long term is to aggressively invest in renewable energy and to use billions of dollars of available federal funds to transition to a more resilient, renewable-based grid,” IEEFA said.
Arriving just days before the five-year anniversary of María, Hurricane Fiona “brought renewed attention to Puerto Rico’s crumbling grid and the failure of government agencies and utility companies to build a more resilient electricity system,” writes Canary Media. “Energy experts and community organizers have urged officials for years not to build back the existing fossil fuel-powered grid and invest instead in rooftop solar arrays, battery storage systems, and microgrids to prevent more sweeping blackouts.”
Locals Turn to Solar+Storage
And yet, close to a third of the island’s hospitals were running on diesel-fuelled generators nearly a week after Fiona made landfall, requiring the National Guard to provide emergency fuel supplies as the island burned through its domestic reserves. In the absence of a policy shift to renewables, local businesses, residents, and non-profits have stepped into the breach, installing more than 45,000 rooftop solar and storage systems since María hit in 2017, Canary Media says.
Providing solid “proof of concept,” some 97% of Sunnova Energy’s 30,000 rooftop solar customers kept their lights on—and their perishables cold, and vital communications and medical equipment charged—throughout Fiona’s assault. Another solar developer, Sunrun, told Canary Media its battery fleet on the island “had provided more than 15,000 hours of backup power to thousands of customers as of September 20.”
One local fire station in the coastal city of Guánica rejoiced that it managed to keep its lights and communications systems running during Fiona, thanks to a system of 52 solar panels and four Tesla Powerwall batteries.
The solar and battery system “is working beautifully,” Sergeant Luis Saez told Canary Media. In contrast, back when Hurricane María and a 2020 earthquake hit, the firefighters on his team were unable to receive radio calls because of power blackouts, and instead “had to rely on people yelling for help,” Saez said.
But for the millions of Puerto Ricans with no access to rooftop solar, the situation remains very bleak.
“It is unacceptable that five years after hurricane María, Puerto Rico is still in such a precarious situation,” Environmental Defense Fund Senior Director of Caribbean Initiatives Daniel Whittle told Utility Dive, stressing the urgent need to modernize the island’s grid.
“The current energy crisis is dire, and Puerto Ricans and the island’s economy are still taking a hit,” he said.
The push for climate-resilient infrastructure that advocates are seeking aligns with Puerto Rico’s Energy Public Policy Act, which mandates that the territory obtain 40% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025, 60% by 2040, and 100% by 2050. The act also sets a 2028 deadline to phase out of coal-fired generation.
The Solar and Energy Storage Association (SESA) of Puerto Rico is also amongst those urging action. SESA Chief Policy Officer Javier Rua-Jovet told Microgrid Knowledge in January that PREPA will need to acquire 3,750 megawatts of renewables by 2025 to meet the island’s 40% target.
And though the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (PREB) is pushing PREPA, progress remains piecemeal—but not for lack of funds. Some $20 billion in community development block grant funding was secured for Puerto Rico in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, after Hurricane María, with up to $500 million for solar incentives.
“The energy bureau is a good actor here, always pushing and pushing and pushing,” said Rua-Jovet. “PREPA sometimes pushes back, that’s in their DNA.”
He added, “We are addicted to fossil fuels. This is a big cultural change; there’s a push back.”
Rua-Jovet said one solution would be to create incentives for private companies like Sunnova to help establish home microgrids and oversee virtual power plants (VPPs) that draw from them.
Signs of progress include the development of the island’s first intermunicipal microgrid. Called Microrred de la Montaña, or Microgrid of the Mountain, the solar and storage community microgrid serving some 90,000 residents will be governed by the island’s first electric cooperative, Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña, Microgrid Knowledge wrote in March. The new system is expected to cut electricity costs for the community by at least 20%, with savings increasing to “as much as 60%” once existing hydropower is looped in.
Microgrids Deliver Resilience
As for the role of microgrids in building climate resilience, Fiona made that clear. Five days after the hurricane hit, the island’s 45 residential microgrids became critical resiliency hubs, EDF’s Whittle said. So did the 120 solar microgrids installed by the Red Cross, Direct Relief, and Blue Planet Energy at schools in 83 municipalities around the island, which continue to supply shelter, food, drinking water, and medical aid to those in need.
New microgrids expected to be completed next year will be “designed to withstand Category 5 hurricane-force winds, with controls and switchgear enclosures rated for extreme conditions and their battery storage systems raised on concrete pads and rated for marine environments,” Microgrid Knowledge says.
But again, the disbursement of federal funds to help build more microgrids “has been slow.”
With the renewables buildout lagging, and the struggle to restore power after Fiona, local leaders and state officials are doubling down on their scrutiny of Luma Energy, the private consortium that assumed control of the grid’s transmission and distribution system last year in a deal purportedly designed to rescue Puerto Rico from the notorious corruption and incompetence of PREPA.
The Hill reports that New York Attorney General Letitia James has called on the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to probe the “‘frequent and lengthy outages’” suffered by the island since Luma assumed control of the grid, as well as sky high utility bills in a territory where more than 40% of the population lives in poverty.
The $1.5-billion, 15-year deal brokered with Luma—a consortium composed of a Calgary-based utility and a Houston-based company, both of which possess “substantial” natural gas interests—has been deeply unpopular from its inception. Local engineers, environmentalists, and union leaders objected to the lack of transparency in the process that awarded Luma the deal, which allowed for zero public input. And they questioned Luma’s stated goal of “hardening the grid,” which goes against the distributed, climate-resilient system that Puerto Rico needs.
And then there is the role of American legislators, and FEMA. Four days after Fiona hit, Casa Pueblo, a community-based organization in Puerto Rico, wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging that federal recovery to be sent to organizations that stand ready to build a “decentralized and renewable electric system.” The group asserted that “the answer to our problems is not to announce limitless federal funding” when allocated funds “have never been used appropriately or effectively,” and urged Congress “to avoid repeating its mistakes from the previous five years.”
A glance at FEMA’s most recent plans for Puerto Rico does not inspire confidence. As reported by the Washington Post, June saw the agency announcing 15 new projects, worth more than $107 million, all of them “dedicated to making Puerto Rico’s power grid more reliable.”
The FEMA announcement suggests a strong drive to entrench legacy power systems, despite its assertion that “the historic amount of funds to rebuild the island’s power grid represents an opportunity to build back better.”
The word “mitigation” does show up in the media release. “We have approved an additional US$9.2 million in mitigation funding for energy projects,” said FEMA’s Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator José G. Baquero. But the reference is to “hazard mitigation,” not anything directly to do with climate or energy transition.
Singled out for praise on the “hazard mitigation” front is the more than $13.4 million in approved funds to install filtration equipment for a wastewater treatment system and water pump condenser at the Aguirre power plant. Such improvements will “help increase energy production and are essential elements for a more reliable grid,” FEMA says, without mentioning that this 1,492-megawatt plant runs on a combination of diesel and heavy fuel oil.