Five years ago, Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, resulting in the longest blackout in the history of the archipelago and the United States; in some regions, blackouts continued 11 months after the storm. Puerto Rico’s centralized, fossil-fuel dependent, long neglected energy system was no match for the hurricane.
An estimated 3,000 lives were lost during the storm and its aftermath. Many of these deaths have been attributed to the loss of electricity needed to power medical equipment and store medication and food. Communities living in poverty were the last to have power restored and had the highest mortality rates.
Despite the correlation between Puerto Rico’s power grid and the health and safety of the archipelago’s residents, the Puerto Rican government has largely ignored calls made by Puerto Rican civil society to build a more resilient electrical system that relies principally on distributed renewable energy—i.e., renewable energy generated near points of use, such as at homes and businesses. To this day, frequent blackouts threaten residents’ survival, with the most marginalized communities bearing the brunt of Puerto Rico’s energy crisis.
A Faulty Power System Backbone Falls Short
The electric power system is Puerto Rico’s backbone. The local economic, food, and health systems and the quality of life of all the archipelago’s residents depend on it. However, this backbone is weak. A full 97 percent of Puerto Rico’s power grid depends on imported fossil fuels. Centralized energy generation means that most energy is generated at one point of the archipelago then transmitted over miles of precarious cables to the rest of the territory, leaving Puerto Rico extremely vulnerable to not only the natural elements that constantly threaten the territory, but also to frequent outages from routine system failures.
In addition, fossil-fuel dependent power stations have contaminated the environment, resulting in irreversible health problems and habitat destruction, as well as one of the most expensive electricity rates in the United States and its territories. What is more, the communities most impacted by the power grid’s shortcomings—particularly low-income, Afro-descendant communities in the coastal regions where electricity is generated, and low-income, rural communities where outages are most common—are excluded from governance of the power system. These conditions result in unreliable, inequitable, and polluting energy generation and supply, adversely affecting the territory’s economic sustainability and citizens’ quality of life.
A Vision of Energy Self-Sufficiency Rises
In the face of this injustice and government inaction to resolve it, community, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations have stepped up to lead Puerto Rico towards a more just, sustainable, and human-centered energy future, with solar energy as our North Star.
Local community groups—backed by rigorous expert studies—have long advocated for transition to a 100-percent renewable, decentralized energy system that is organized in particular around rooftop, solar energy. In response, the Puerto Rican government adopted in 2019 an aggressive public policy to achieve 100-percent renewable energy generation by 2050.
However, a policy statement does not necessarily translate into action, and organizations and groups like Comité Diálogo Ambiental, Casa Pueblo, CAMBIO, El Puente, Barrio Eléctrico, and Hispanic Federation, among many others, have continued advocating to ensure that the vision for decentralized, rooftop, affordable solar energy is fully realized.
Indeed, we have done far more than advocate. El Puente has also been a leader in community organizing and education. CAMBIO provides critical research, develops policy proposals, and leads public awareness and education campaigns. Barrio Eléctrico offers community education, performs solar panel installations, and is exploring new community-based business models to increase energy access. Hispanic Federation has not only supported over 100 community rooftop installation projects through grants, but also engages as a partner in project management and technical assistance work. And these are just a few of many, many partners involved in efforts to remake Puerto Rico’s power grid.
Their vision for a new, more resilient energy infrastructure in Puerto Rico has been validated time and again by researchers. A recent study by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that “solar energy generation sited on rooftops offset or reduced the overall amount of energy needing transmission and distribution [and] Puerto Rico has the potential to produce four to five times as much solar energy as is needed to meet its current residential demand.”
In an earlier University of Puerto Rico study, researchers recommended rooftop solar as “the least environmentally intrusive” energy source. More recently, CAMBIO and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis presented a viable strategy to implement rooftop solar plus storage and achieve 75 percent renewable power generation in 15 years. In addition, a study by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, funded by the US Economic Development Administration, projected that solar energy could provide up to 20,000 jobs in Puerto Rico by 2030.
Unfortunately, the path to implement this policy has not been simple. Fossil fuel industries have strongly opposed community efforts, requiring the nonprofit sector to seek more resources, create new and strengthen existing nonprofit-led coalitions, publish research, and sharpen strategies to push back against well-funded and powerful industry forces.
One community response to such corporate resistance is “Queremos Sol” (which means “we want sun” in English), a civil society, multisectoral proposal for the transformation of Puerto Rico’s electric system. Validated by technical experts, the proposal is founded on the precepts of energy justice and a sustainable energy system that relies on distributed, renewable, and local energy sources and is governed via multisectoral participation.
What Energy Justice Entails
In the aftermath of Hurricane María, it became clear that while the electric power system had collapsed throughout Puerto Rico, the effects of the outage impacted communities and sectors differently. As noted above, the poorest, most isolated, and most vulnerable residents of the archipelago fared the worst. In addition to playing a leading role in Puerto Rico’s recovery, local nonprofit and community-based organizations began working alongside the philanthropic sector and the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, among other entities, to realize some measure of energy justice.
The US Department of Energy defines energy justice as “the goal of achieving equity in both the social and economic participation in the energy system, while also remediating social, economic, and health burdens on those disproportionately harmed by the energy system.”
For members of the Puerto Rican renewable energy coalition, energy justice also means that community members do not face higher risks of cancer or asthma because they breathe coal ash every day from the energy plant that was installed behind their homes, as is prevalent in communities along Puerto Rico’s southern coast. Energy justice also means that a family earning minimum wage doesn’t have to worry about how they will afford to keep the lights on or replace food that spoiled in the latest blackout, as happens now. It ensures that our energy system does not compromise our natural resources or food sovereignty, as some current proposals risk doing. It means not losing a single additional life because there is no way to power the respirators people need to survive, the cause of many lives lost during Hurricane María and in the years since.
This is the vision that moves us to act.
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A Growing Community Movement
Since Hurricane María, the local nonprofit sector, with support from philanthropy, has piloted a vision of energy justice by advancing the installation of tens of thousands of solar panels to power and add resiliency to community centers, health facilities, schools, fire stations, small businesses, vulnerable households, and community microgrids.
A potent example of this transformational work is the Coquí Solar initiative in Salinas and Guayama in Southeastern Puerto Rico. Led by leaders in the renewable energy movement, including the Junta Comunitaria del Poblado Coquí, the Iniciativa de Ecodesarrollo de Bahía de Jobos (IDEBAJO), and Comité Diálogo Ambiental, this initiative seeks to bring energy justice to one of Puerto Rico’s largest Afro-descendant regions, namely, Jobos Bay and surrounding areas, which have been overburdened by nearby fossil-fired power plants.
In a radical paradigm shift away from fossil fuel and centralized control, the Coquí Solar initiative has implemented a deliberative process centered in principles of environmental justice where local communities envision, prepare, educate, plan, and implement community-based energy solutions. In a similar fashion, the Jobos community in Guayama purchased and installed 25 solar systems to demonstrate via a series of participatory, multisector workshops the viability of rooftop solar and storage as an alternative to a nearby coal-fired power plant owned by the Virginia-based multinational company, Applied Energy Services (AES).
The selection of Jobos households who would receive solar equipment was based on two resident-determined criteria: 1) vulnerability and need, such as health conditions like cancer, and 2) participation in and commitment to community well-being and the struggle against the AES power plant. Such community participation includes conducting planning meetings to discuss issues related to equipment selection, acquisition, and installation.
This process’ key takeaways were that community groups can and must participate in the electric system as prosumers—meaning as both producers and consumers of energy, not merely passive consumers. The process of organizing, planning, and community capacity building and the successful installation of small rooftop solar kits also provides a model for other communities where energy service is at risk.
Energy Justice and Health
Energy justice touches many aspects of people’s lives, including health. In a direct response to the loss of lives and challenges faced by the health system after María, the Hispanic Federation and others joined forces to launch Solar Saves Lives. This initiative aims to maximize the rooftop solar energy potential of nonprofit federally qualified health centers (FQHC) to strengthen their resiliency and ensure continuity of critical services during blackouts.
FQHCs provide health services to more than 350,000 people, mostly low-income patients, in Puerto Rico each year. During the power outage caused by Hurricane María, many FQHCs had to temporarily stop operating because they had neither electricity nor sufficient gasoline to power emergency generators.
Today, with philanthropic backing, many of these centers have been able to acquire renewable energy technology. For example, the Concilio de Salud Integral (Comprehensive Health Council), located in the municipality of Loíza, now boasts Puerto Rico’s first industrial scale microgrid. This health center serves as a lifeline for residents of Loíza, a primarily Black coastal community in the northeast region of Puerto Rico. Of the 12,000 patients served annually by the clinic, 99 percent come from households earning less than twice the federal poverty level or less. The clinic’s new microgrid relies on an automatic controller that can operate solar panels, batteries, an electric generator, and the utility network without human intervention, maximizing efficiency and effectiveness.
Energy Justice and the Economy
Reliable, community-based sustainable energy is also critical for the wellbeing of Puerto Rico’s economic and food systems. Concerned with the impact of blackouts on food security and small businesses, a local marine conservation organization, Conservación ConCiencia, is leading the installation of solar energy systems in Puerto Rico’s fishing villages. These 42 regional villages serve as the base of operations for many of Puerto Rico’s artisanal fishers and fish vendors.
The artisanal fishing industry is essential for achieving local food security; however, fishers face high economic vulnerability and are among the archipelago’s lowest-earning workers. Fishers and fish vendors rely on electricity to refrigerate the daily catch. The months of blackout after Hurricane María led not only to food waste, but to millions of dollars in lost earnings for fishers and vendors and the loss of an important food product for communities. Not surprisingly, the entire fishing industry was destabilized. Each subsequent blackout exacerbates the problem.
To date, four rooftop solar energy systems have been installed in fishing villages across South and Southeast Puerto Rico. They have already proven their worth through multiple blackouts, ensuring that these fishing communities can operate even when the power grid is out. In short, the work of Conservación ConCiencia and other energy justice organizations proves how guaranteeing access to energy mitigates poverty, sustains the economy, and promotes food security.
A Broader Social Vision
Solar panels do not save lives by themselves. It is time to stop talking about the electric power system as solely a technical issue and start humanizing energy by putting a face to those families that depend on it to survive and augment their quality of life. Although the work to date has made a difference for many, thousands of vulnerable communities are still waiting for energy justice.
It is no coincidence that Puerto Rico’s Afro-descendant and low-income communities are disproportionately harmed by the energy system. As such, energy justice movement must center them. Community integration is necessary at all stages of the development of the electric power system to ensure that community needs are met.
As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane María approaches, there is enormous potential to transform the power grid to serve the public interest. The federal government’s allocation of $14 billion of recovery funds to rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electric power system presents a unique and unprecedented opportunity.
There is a broad, multisector, public consensus that it is time to leave behind the centralized model based on burning fossil fuels. Distributed renewable energy projects that are based on rooftop solar systems, battery energy storage, and similar alternatives are proven to work. The question remains if there is true political will, particularly from the Puerto Rican government, to move towards a sustainable, just electricity system.
Unfortunately, we have yet to see the Puerto Rican government commit to using federal funding allocations to fully meet its ambitious 100-percent renewable energy goals by 2050. We have seen even less commitment to distributed, rooftop solar energy systems.
Community stakeholders are demanding that the federal and Puerto Rican governments invest disaster recovery funds in realizing energy justice, starting with the most vulnerable communities. We need government support to achieve this vision.
Failure to do so will continue to endanger thousands of lives and could even threaten Puerto Rico’s long-term economic viability. Transformation of the archipelago’s power grid must and can begin immediately because distributed renewable energy alternatives are viable and achievable. To achieve true energy justice, we must transform our system. The time is now.