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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 Ambitious Clean Energy Plan

  • Puerto Rico’s already-vulnerable power grid was crushed in 2017’s Category 5 Hurricane Maria.
  • After the storm, many of Puerto Rico’s residents were left without power for nearly a full calendar year as part of the world’s second-longest blackout.
  • At least 138 energy-related projects are expected to begin construction in Puerto Rico this year.

Nearly five years ago, Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy. Or rather, it declared the closest thing to bankruptcy that a state or territory can declare when it announced in 2017 that it would not be able to repay its debts on the heels of a devastating hurricane that left the island in desperate condition. Now, just last week, a United States federal judge finally approved a deal to get Puerto Rico out of bankruptcy and help the territory to take significant steps toward becoming financially solvent. 

“The restructuring plan will reduce the largest portion of the Puerto Rico government’s debt — some $33 billion — by about 80 percent, to $7.4 billion,” the New York Times reported last week. The deal will also save the government more than $50 billion in debt payments.” While the deal is an enormous boon to cash-strapped Puerto Rico, the territory is still facing some serious challenges. The government itself may have gotten a bailout, but other public companies, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), remain bankrupt. 

One of the many catastrophic effects of 2017’s Category 5 Hurricane Maria marked the complete and utter destruction of the island’s aging and vulnerable power grid. After the storm, many of Puerto Rico’s residents were left without power for nearly a full calendar year as part of the world’s second-longest blackout. Even today, almost five years after the fact, Puerto Rico is still plagued with frequent blackouts, power shortages, and grid failures due to the woefully inadequate and outdated infrastructure. In light of this ongoing crisis, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has allocated nearly $10 billion to PREPA to repair the damage. “The federal funding is targeted to repair and replace thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines, electrical substations, power generation systems, and other grid improvements,” The American Public Power Association reported in 2020, at the time of the aid package’s approval. 

In 2022, Puerto Rico’s struggles with reliable energy structure continue. Just this month, three U.S. federal agencies have pledged to work with local Puerto Rican policymakers to bring the island’s power grid into the 21st century and to speed up the efforts to stabilize the island’s energy security. As part of this initiative, these three agencies — the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development — have officially signed an agreement to begin a clean energy transition in Puerto Rico by 2025, with the aim of reaching a 100% renewable grid by mid-century.

The goal is both admirable and ambitious — and possibly overly so. At present, less than 3% of the U.S. island territory’s energy comes from renewable resources. As part of the United States, Puerto Rico is necessarily a part of the Biden administration’s clean energy goals, which include reaching net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050. 

In Puerto Rico, building toward this goal will include a community-driven study known as PR100, to be carried out by the Department of Energy and Funded by FEMA, in order to determine feasible pathways for Puerto Rico to reach 100 percent renewable energy by just 2050. The final results of this study are projected to be ready by 2024. PR100 is modeled off of LA100,  Los Angeles’ “100% Renewable Energy Study,” which determined that the city can reach 100% renewable electricity by 2045, or even 2035 on an accelerated track. The study also determined that not only are these goals feasible, they will benefit air quality and public health “if coupled with electrification of other sectors.”

In Puerto Rico, the federal government hopes that in addition to these benefits, a clean energy transition will provide improved resilience to the island’s ailing power grid. “This administration is making unprecedented investments in communities to help them adapt and become more resilient," U.S. Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. "We will continue to provide the necessary resources to achieve these goals.” The necessary revamp of Puerto Rico’s energy system puts the island in a unique and ideal position to be the nation’s 100% clean energy guinea pig. If the Biden administration makes good on its on-island pledges, Puerto Rico could find itself at the vanguard of the global clean energy movement. At least 138 energy-related projects are expected to begin construction in Puerto Rico this year.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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