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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Puerto Rico's Solar Rooftop Revolution

  • Puerto Rico experienced the most extended blackout in U.S. history after Hurricane Maria in 2017, leading to a renewed focus on building a resilient renewable energy grid.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy provided a plan in 2022 for Puerto Rico to achieve a renewable and resilient energy sector by 2050, aligning with Puerto Rico's goal of 40% renewable energy by 2025.
  • Many Puerto Ricans are adopting rooftop solar installations with attached storage, making the island's energy approach more decentralized and potentially offering lessons for future energy systems globally.

Early this year, Oilprice posed the question: “Puerto Rico Has Big Plans For Renewables, But Can It Deliver?” Six months later, it seems safe to say that the answer is a resounding yes. After the United States island territory saw its power grid collapse entirely after the devastating double-whammy of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, it’s gone all-in on a bold new plan to build back better through the centralization of renewable energy production.

Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was already compromised and vulnerable when the category 4 Hurricane Maria crashed into the island in September, 2017, thanks to decades of aging infrastructure, insufficient investment, and poor maintenance, on top of the previous damage from Hurricane Irma just weeks earlier. The combinations of these factors, plus the severity of the storm, led to devastating fallout. The collapse of the island’s power grid led to the longest and most sweeping blackout in all of United States history and approximately 3,000 casualties. Most of those casualties were not directly results of the storm surge, but secondary problems related to the grid collapse, which left many hospitals without power and buildings without water. Parts of the island didn’t have their power restored for over a year.

It was a devastating tragedy – and an unprecedented opportunity to try to build a renewable-focused grid from the ground up. In 2022, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) released a Puerto Rico 100% Renewable Energy and Resilience Study, which maps out a viable pathway to achieve a more hurricane-resilient and climate-friendly energy sector in Puerto Rico by 2050. This outline is a continuation of Puerto Rico’s own policy ambitions, which already aimed to reach 40% renewable energy by just 2025. 

But the next major hurricane will happen much, much sooner than that. As Vox reported last September, in spite of the DOE’s best efforts and FEMA’s funds, “the same hurdles that left the grid in a fragile state still remain: sluggish bureaucracy, poor management, underinvestment, and the inherent difficulty of delivering power on an island.”

While major infrastructure plans are already underway to transform the island into a cleaner and more resilient power hub, a great number Puerto Ricans have taken matters into their own hands by installing their own solar panels instead of continuing to wait on historically slow-moving government initiatives. The island has more rooftop solar installations per capita than 88% of U.S. states. And that figure doesn't even include decentralized solar systems that aren’t connected to the island’s primary grid, which are increasingly popular solutions in rural areas. 

While the increase in solar itself is a huge leap forward for the island, even more important is the rising rate of battery-attached solar. "After Maria, solar is basically universally installed with storage," Javier Rúa-Jovet, chief policy officer for the Solar and Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico, recently told CNET. "It was really a paradigm-shifting event." The result is more reliable, more affordable, and more environmentally friendly energy across the island. 

Not only has Puerto RIco been given a unique opportunity to build an innovative clean energy grid from the ground up, it could also be an invaluable mid-scale pilot project for the rest of the world to learn from. The island’s unique mix of big-government projects and grassroots solar micro-grids will undoubtedly provide some key lessons for diversified and increasingly decentralized energy systems of the future.

"Everyone should be keeping their eye on Puerto Rico," said Lauren Rosenblatt, co-founder of the solar nonprofit Barrio Electrico. "What the [rest of the] US is going to see is that there are a lot more options for resiliency and sustainability. [...] Not every solution that works in Puerto Rico will work in your community, but they're generating myriad solutions. We're lucky to have them leading the way."

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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