The Biden administration should help transform Puerto Rico’s energy grid | Opinion

·4 min read

Since LUMA Energy, a new company set up by U.S. and Canadian conglomerates, Quanta Services and ATCO, took over operation of the Puerto Rico electrical grid, voltage fluctuations are damaging hospital equipment and household appliances, sometimes leading to fires.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses were either without power and water or threatened by lack of electric service to water pumps that may cut off potable water supplies. Previously, an explosion at one of Puerto Rico’s main substations left nearly one million electric customers in Puerto Rico without power.

The troublesome developments come after LUMA took over operation of the Puerto Rico electrical grid without having the necessary workforce, without a remediation plan and without performance metrics, among other shortcomings.

As has happened many times before (think Whitefish, a small business in Montana that was awarded a $330 million, no-bid contract in 2017 to repair Puerto Rico’s grid), dubious companies are looking to cash in on the federal disaster funds meant to help Puerto Rico recover from the 2017 hurricanes, at the expense of Puerto Rico residents and businesses.

Biden administration can help

The new private operator is proposing to rebuild the centralized transmission and distribution (T&D), fossil-dependent grid that will keep the territory tied to a 20th century anachronism, instead of making way for a lifesaving transformation of the electric system, based on rooftop/on-site solar panels, battery energy storage systems, energy efficiency and similar programs. This type of technical transformation coupled with a new governance structure for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority that embraces civil society participation, energy literacy, and democracy can be achieved with the help of the Biden administration.

LUMA and its affiliates stand to profit from approximately $14 billion in federal funds allocated for the Puerto Rico electric system by rebuilding the existing grid. Their gains could deprive Puerto Rico residents and businesses of the opportunity to have a say in the electric grid for at least a generation. The Biden administration should not allow this travesty of justice and waste of public funds but rather should earmark the resources allocated to PREPA for on-site renewables and storage along the lines of the Department of Energy “Solar for All” program.

A related concern is that part of the FEMA funds are being geared towards new “natural” gas-fired (methane) plants. One company looking to place Puerto Rico into greater dependence on fossil-fired energy generation is New Fortress Energy, a “fracked gas” dealer. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, New Fortress built a Liquified Natural Gas terminal in San Juan without Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authorization and now seeks to expand its gas heavy operations throughout the territory using the FEMA funds to build new fossil plants.

New Fortress is pushing an alleged “transition” with more natural gas, already Puerto Rico’s largest source of energy generation, before going to renewables. Other countries, like Australia and Japan, have made huge strides, rolling out rooftop solar and storage in much less sundrenched latitudes.

Involve communities

Another conglomerate eyeing FEMA funds for big profits is the AES Corporation, which, through its affiliate, AES Puerto Rico, LLC has held Puerto Rico hostage since 2002. The investment of federal funds to rebuild the T&D system would perpetuate AES’ operations in Puerto Rico. At the dawn of the 21st century, AES built Puerto Rico’s first coal-fired power plant in Guayama, in southeastern Puerto Rico. AES did not build or arrange for a disposal facility for its coal-ash waste, because it alleged, falsely, that it could create a market for the reuse of all the heavy metal-laden residuals or export the toxic waste back to the open-pit mines in Columbia, South America. Instead, AES shipped hundreds of thousands of tons of its coal ash waste to Florida.

The Biden administration could avoid these disasters that also have spillover effects in the states. The federal government should support Puerto Rico civil society efforts to transform the electric sector to decentralized onsite/rooftop renewable energy through solar power and storage, involving organized communities, the public utility and local contractors.

As a new hurricane season begins, one that is predicted to be 60 percent more active than average, rooftop solar and storage can provide lifesaving resiliency and save FEMA and the federal government a lot of money, while putting into practice President Biden’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis, focusing on environmental justice and strengthening the middle class with good paying renewable energy jobs and sustainable economic development.

Ruth Santiago is an attorney with a community and environmental-energy law practice in Puerto Rico and part of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

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