Photo: AP

Alina Saenz’s house on the outskirts of San Juan glows warmly in the pitch black nights that have plagued Puerto Rico in the two weeks since Category 4 Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The imperceptible hum of the refrigerator, fans to circulate the humid tropical air and nightly news on the television were all afterthoughts of modern life before the storm but are now godsends in its wake for an island still largely without power.

A tidy row of solar panels on her roof and a battery storage system ensures that as long as there’s sun, Saenz will have electricity that most of her neighbors are without.

“We only depend on the sun to shine, which happens on this island almost every day,” Saenz wrote to Earther in an email. “[Other] people have struggled trying to find diesel or gasoline, a frustrating task during this catastrophe.”

Saenz’s home is a rare bright spot on Puerto Rico, where 93 percent of its residents are still without power due in large part to an antiquated electrical grid—a situation that could take months to resolve.

The lack of electricity is creating a series of cascading impacts on the island that could mean decades of recovery ahead. Chief among them are public health concerns, rapidly increasing economic losses and a brain drain as Puerto Ricans head to the mainland to find work.

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What’s happening to Puerto Rico is the type of scenario that could play out with increasing likelihood as climate change makes storms more severe. But the huge hit to Puerto Rico’s grid also affords the island a unique opportunity to modernize its grid and create the robust infrastructure to weather such storms
and more extreme heat waves.

“This is an opportunity to completely transform the way electricity is generated in Puerto Rico and the federal government should support this,” Judith Enck, the former Environmental Protection Agency for Region 2 administrator, told Earther. “They need a clean energy renewables plan and not spending hurricane money propping up the old fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was a mess before the storm. The island’s electrical utility, PREPA, filed for bankruptcy in July this year. But its financial problems began long before then.

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Forty-seven percent of Puerto Rico’s power needs were met by burning oil last year, a ridiculously high percentage for a very expensive method of electricity generation. For the U.S. as a whole, petroleum accounted for just 0.3% of all electricity generated in 2016. The majority of the rest of Puerto Rico’s energy came courtesy of coal and natural gas, with renewables accounting for just 2% of electricity generation.

Yet as recently as 2012, Puerto Rico’s use of oil accounted for 60% of all electricity generation. All the years of paying for expensive imported oil precipitated the shift to include other generating sources, but the switch came too late. Paying for oil drained PREPA’s coffers and caused deferred maintenance for years.

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“In that time of extreme petroleum prices, the utility was borrowing money and buying oil in order to keep those plants operating,” Luis Martinez, an attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council and former special aide to the president of Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board, told Earther. “That precipitated the bankruptcy that followed. It was in pretty poor shape before the storm. Once the storm got there, it finished the job.”

Those who had power not connected to the grid have been able to keep a sense of normalcy about their lives in the wake of Maria. Saenz has been able to do it thanks to what’s called a bimodal solar system, which can feed electricity generated by rooftop solar panels into the grid or store it in a battery.

Solar panel debris is seen scattered in a solar panel field in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Photo: Getty

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“María is the perfect scenario to rethink our real energy necessities,” Jose Garcia-Perez, an engineer who works for Puerto Rican solar installation firm Solarora, said. “For our existing clients, without PREPA and with a grid tied solution on their roof, it is time to take the second step to add the bimodal solution.”

But on an island where the average household income is $19,518, installing rooftop solar, let alone a bimodal system, is prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of residents. That’s further compounded by the fact that residents can’t access federal solar tax credits because, despite being American citizens, they don’t pay federal taxes (though the Puerto Rican government does). 

That means how the grid is built back will be the biggest step to ensuring the resiliency of the island’s electricity system to climate change and ensuring equitable access to energy. In the near term, PREPA is walking a tightrope between restoring power and ensuring the island doesn’t make the same mistakes that have left millions without power. Martinez said that FEMA funds can only go toward rebuilding what was there.

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“A lot of distribution lines were on wood poles,” he said. “Concrete would make them more resistant to winds, but that would potentially not be authorized under the use of FEMA funds. We’re looking into if some of those requirements can be waived so rebuilding can be more resilient.”

Burying power lines could also be a way to ensure electricity can flow with minimal interruption. As power lines go up—or down below ground—the generating stations they start at could also face a huge overhaul.

Any new wind and solar installations would have to consider storms like Maria. Dakota Smith, a meteorologist, documented solar generating plants around the island that were torn to shreds by Maria. But he also found one that survived relatively unscathed.

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The San Fermin solar project on the banks on the Loiza River in northeast Puerto Rico was built to withstand Category 5 winds by reinforcing the structure. The panels and all other equipment for the 27-megawatt project were also raised six feet above the ground to guard against flooding. Aerial imagery shows the plant appears to have weathered the storm. It could serve as a prototype for what the future of solar looks like in Puerto Rico and other exposed islands in the Caribbean.

The San Fermin solar power plant appears relatively unscathed in aerial imagery taken four days after Maria. Photo: NOAA

Willet Kempton, a wind energy expert at the University of Delaware, told Earther that well-sited wind turbines can survive Category 4 and quite possibly Category 5 winds, another of proof of concept that renewables can play a meaningful role in creating a resilient energy system in hurricane-prone regions.

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Hooking up these systems to microgrids, small-scale networks that aren’t part of the main power grid, would further ensure the power stays on when the next storm hits.

That type of system might seem a long ways off for electricity-starved Puerto Rico right now. But in a world where fossil fuel use is going to go extinct one way or another, the island has the chance to lay the groundwork for what new energy systems could look like from the ground up.

“PREPA’s power system restoration is happening and many of the restored power lines and generators will remain for the years to come,” Roy Tobert, a principal with Rocky Mountain Institute’s Island Energy Program told Earther. “However, some smart investments made today can meet both objectives, such as providing immediate solar and storage systems to remote communities for water purification, communications, and lighting. Those systems help now, and start on the path toward a modern and clean grid.”