Hurricane Maria, one of the most extreme climate events to devastate the island of Puerto Rico (PR), left tragic statistics in its wake: thousands of people killed, material damages of more than $90 billion from which many people are still struggling to recover, hundreds of animals (abandoned, lost, and hurt) that are still looking for a home—and the largest power outage in US history, one that for a large swath of the population lasted even for months.
While the lights have come back on for the majority of Puerto Ricans, the hurricane and the destruction it caused shined a spotlight on an electric power system that was on the edge of collapse and that today demands urgent investment. Today’s decisions about investment and management will define whether the system can survive, recover, and be resilient for the long term.
Earlier this month, Ciencia PR, the Caribbean division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS-CD), and the Union of Concerned Scientists organized a “Science in Action” symposium, in which one of the questions explored focused on that very issue: What can we do to make sure that the island’s power system emerges solid, resilient, and healthy?
Here I share some of the key issues that emerged in a panel discussion between Lionel Orama of the National Institute of Island Energy and Sustainability (INESI, in Spanish), Agustín Carbó Lugo of ClimaTHINK, former commissioner of the Puerto Rican Energy Commission (CEPR), and me.
A critical moment for the power sector
- Maria was the straw that broke the camel’s back of an electricity sector that was already on the verge of collapse. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA, or AEE in Spanish) was already in an extreme fiscal crisis with a debt of $9 billion dollars. This contributed to PREPA underinvesting in the infrastructure and maintenance of facilities and equipment. On arriving, the hurricane knocked down 80% of the power poles and all of the transmission lines, leaving the island’s 3.4 million inhabitants in the dark.
- For years, PREPA has clung to the use of fossil fuels, forcing Puerto Ricans to depend on fuel imports, exposing them to swings in fuel prices, and subjecting them to the financial stress associated with operating power plants dependent on oil, coal and natural gas. The lack of an energy mix that was diversified, decentralized, and free of the dependence on imported fossil fuels has prolonged even more the recovery of—and confidence in—the energy services provided by PREPA.
- The privatization of PREPA is adding to the fiscal and operational uncertainty. At the beginning of the year, Governor Ricardo Roselló signed into law the privatization of PREPA. This privatization will define who generates the electricity, from what sources, and at what prices; so far there’s total uncertainty about the answers to these questions and the impact that they’ll have on island residents.
- Likewise, the island for years lacked a control entity to ensure transparency and optimal functioning of PREPA until the CEPR was created in 2014. Despite its importance, its work has been threatened with a new law signed recently by Gov. Roselló.
The transformation that Puerto Ricans deserve
- The voices of the scientific community and civil society need to be reflected in the development of the utility’s “integrated resource plan” (IRP). Having them at the table is key for making sure that decisions made are informed by solid technical analyses that respond to the needs of the communities. INESI is one of the organizations contributing to this effort.
- A solid system needs to consider diversification and resilience. It’s crucial to reduce dependence on fossil fuel imports, diversify generation to incorporate local sources of energy (like solar and wind), upgrade electrical distribution systems, and integrate microgrids and energy storage systems to increase confidence in the grid and meet critical needs (at health centers, in emergency shelters, and for water pumping systems, for example). Reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency programs is also crucial. All of this should be guided by principals of transparency and affordability.
- A healthy system should benefit us all. Emissions of heat-trapping gases (like carbon dioxide and methane) from power plants based on fossil fuels (like oil, coal and natural gas) just worsen the effects of climate change, like hurricanes, floods, and droughts that become ever more devastating. Burning fossil fuels also emits a number of air pollutants (like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter) that can have big impacts on our health. It’s vital that we make the transition to clean energy as quickly as possible.
Energy, climate, and health: An equation that affects us all
My visit to the Isla del Encanto affected me deeply. Interacting with some of the island’s experts on energy, environment, and health reconfirmed for me that these variables are intrinsically linked at the local level. I return to Boston inspired by all of the work led by the symposium’s organizers and participants, and motivated to collaborate with them on these themes, which have an impact not just locally but globally.
While climate change affects us all, some communities are more vulnerable to the bad decisions that others have taken for them. Hopefully the power that comes from working together can help us to have an increasingly strong voice for urgent action to address climate change, for the sake of our fellow humans, for our fellow living beings, and for our one planet, Earth.
*NOTE: As the beginning of this post mentions, the hurricane left hundreds of animals (abandoned, lost, and hurt) in need of homes. The island’s shelters have limited capacity (both physical and financial) and need volunteers that can take animals to shelters in different parts of the US. For those who travel to Puerto Rico and are interested in helping out, All Sato Rescue can fill you in. I brought home Grace, an adorable puppy that will soon be up for adoption via Buddy Dog.
This blog is available in Spanish here.