Solar power offers Puerto Ricans a lifeline but remains an elusive goal

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

On a Thursday morning in early April, with school closed, children filled seats in an air-conditioned cinema at a community center, a pizzeria prepared its kitchen for the lunch rush and the local barbershop welcomed customers looking for a quick cut.

The contrast shows why Adjuntas, a community of about 18,000 in the densely forested mountains of central Puerto Rico, has become a showcase for how solar power could solve one of the world’s thorniest problems. island – an energy grid that struggled to recover after Hurricane María all but wiped out it comes out in 2017.

Thanks in large part to the work of Casa Pueblo, a nonprofit that works for conservation, about 400 homes and businesses in Adjuntas have solar power, including more than a dozen stores connected to a small grid. powered by the sun. With backup batteries, systems can operate even during power outages, keeping businesses open and turning organization headquarters into a haven for people using medical devices that need to be powered.

“When you have energy security, you take the weight off the employees as well as the families coming into the business,” 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 employees without disruption or having to reduce our hours.”

But the situation in Adjuntas also shows how far the rest of Puerto Rico needs to go when it comes to 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.

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

Many Puerto Ricans cannot afford the $27,000 a typical solar power system might cost, and the government – which emerged from unprecedented bankruptcy in March – has only begun setting targets renewable energy than in 2019. Some who can afford to add the solar panels to their homes have been deterred by the chaotic state of Puerto Rico’s finances, particularly a proposal to levy a charge on the solar customers to help consolidate the utility.

The Casa Pueblo facilities are funded by money from foundations, both in Puerto Rico and abroad, and by the sale of coffee grown in Adjuntas. Since Hurricane María, the organization has expanded its solar energy adoption efforts to communities in other parts of the island.

“We need public policy to create a business model that aims to help you generate your own energy, not just provide energy,” said Arturo Massol Deyá, associate director of Casa Pueblo. “People are tired of constant power outages and their crumbling appliances.”

After the most recent outage, which began on April 6 after a fire at a power station in the southwestern city of Guayanilla, power was not fully restored for four days. The island-wide shutdown triggered a cascade of problems: water was also cut for many, hospitals had to turn to backup generators, and schools and businesses closed.

The blackout sparked protests and calls for the government to terminate his contract with Luma Energy, the private power company that took over public service last June with a promise to restore the grid. Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia rejected the idea. But constant power outages, along with monthly electricity bills that have jumped 46% over the past year, have heightened frustration with the utility, which is run by a Canadian-owned company. American under a 15-year contract signed last year.

“While some politicians choose to ignore the state of the power grid Luma inherited and 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 the ambition to do more with renewable energy. In 2019, the government adopted a clean energy law which requires 100% of the island’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2050 and includes promises to use federal money to build renewable energy projects that reach low-income communities.

Puerto Rico’s Board of Directors Oversight of Finance Approved 18 renewable energy projects in March with the goal of increasing clean energy generation to 23% of the island’s total by the end of 2024. In February, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a two-year study of Puerto Rico’s clean energy options. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have allocated $12 billion to revamp the island’s energy industry.

Even as it proposed such an ambitious target for renewables, the supervisory board raised the prospect of recharge consumers who have solar panels in their homes by making them pay for the electricity they produce.

Under the proposal, which 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 had to pay for every kilowatt of solar power they generated. . Since the proposal also included a plan to increase conventional electricity rates, it was dropped in March by the governor. But solar energy advocates say they fear that as negotiations continue for a new deal, the charging – which some call the solar tax – could be reactivated.

“We have to find a way to manage 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 by adding a tax on the generation produced by this type of system that we are promoting.”

Uncertainty over whether they will have to pay more for a solar power system on a home or a business has deterred consumers like María Lizardi Córdova, an accountant who lives in San Juan. Ms Lizardi Córdova can see a neighbour’s solar panels from her bedroom window and knows many other people in the neighborhood who have decided to invest in solar energy, but she thinks it is still too early to tell. the transition itself.

“Now is not the right time, and it has to do with all the uncertainty about any additional cost of solar power and what my expenses would be,” Ms Lizardi Córdova said. “The situation is complicated with the debt.”

For Puerto Ricans with medical needs, like refrigerating insulin or powering 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, like Juan Molina Reyes, a farmer who grows plantains, coffee and oranges.

Mr Molina Reyes’ 75-year-old father Luis suffered a stroke in August and needs help breathing. He says he went through seven gas generators trying to get his father’s oxygen concentrator to work when the power grid went down.

That changed in February, when Mr Molina Reyes’ family received solar panels after asking the charity for help. He said he felt lucky to have them.

“It was infuriating to know that if the system failed me at any time, my father would pass,” said Mr Molina Reyes. “It was a tough battle.”

Lynn A. Saleh