When Will Puerto Rico Have Power?

0
7

Miriam Sierra Burgos will never forget the man who walked into her bakery in the small mountain town of Castañer, Puerto Rico, pleading for a days-old fritter. It was five days after Hurricane Maria passed, and Castañer, like the rest of the island, was without power. Supermarkets were out of food, and water had stopped flowing from taps.

“It’s no good; it’s cold,” Sierra said of the fritter. “And the person told me, ‘Miss, you don’t know what’s cold; hunger is cold. That’s food, and food is never cold. It’s never gone bad.’”

After him came people with medications to store in Sierra’s refrigerator, one of the few still running thanks to her generator. Then came residents of the nearby nursing home in search of power for their medical devices. As months passed without electricity, Sierra’s bakery became an ad hoc refuge, and neighbors traveled the island in search of scarce diesel to keep her generator running. Even the nearby hospital came to rely on her bakery to feed its staff and patients.

It was six months before Castañer was reconnected to the grid and nearly a year before electricity was officially restored to the entirety of the island. But the return of power was tenuous. More than five years after Maria and despite billions of dollars in allocated federal recovery funding, Puerto Rico’s electric system remains in a state of protracted disaster, its 30,000 miles of fragile power lines and antiquated oil-burning power plants plagued by regular outages and at the mercy of surging fuel prices. For the worst service in the US, Puerto Ricans pay more than double the average rate. The grid is particularly unstable in remote areas like Castañer, which goes dark as many as three times a week and where Sierra spends $1,200 a month on electricity, plus another $100 daily in fuel for her generator when it goes out.

So it was an easy sell when Maribel Hernandez Soto, a project manager with a nascent electric cooperative, approached Sierra with an offer of reliable and predictably priced power. The group, called Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña, aimed to use solar panels and eventually a nearby derelict hydroelectric dam to form a local grid capable of operating independently from the larger system. The first phase of the grid went live earlier this year, wiring together Sierra’s bakery, the post office across the street, an ice cream shop next door (nearly impossible to run on intermittent power), and a barbershop in whose back room, past the chairs and mirrors, sit a bank of batteries. Now, Sierra only notices the power is out because of the sound of nearby generators starting up. “Solar makes you feel safe,” she said.

In the years after Maria, renewable energy and solar in particular came to be seen as a solution to Puerto Rico’s energy woes. It was cheaper and cleaner than imported fossil fuels and, if deployed in a more distributed system of rooftop panels and regional grids, better able to withstand future storms. In 2019, Puerto Rico passed legislation mandating the island convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 and redesign the grid to be more resilient. Crucially, there was money available to make it happen: an unprecedented $12 billion in disaster recovery funds appropriated by Congress to rebuild the island’s energy system. With funding, policy, and public will aligned, everything would seem to be in place to make Puerto Rico a model for the transition to a renewable, resilient electric system.

That has yet to happen, and whether it will remains unclear. In the five years since Maria, most of the progress has come from individuals and communities desperate for reliable power using their own money or an assortment of philanthropy and grants. There are many such initiatives, from community microgrids like Castañer to solar-powered water filtration systems, emergency solar arrays for medical devices, and the 40,000 individuals who have gone out and bought panels and batteries themselves.

But the renovation of the larger grid has been excruciatingly slow. Less than 2 percent of the $9.5 billion allocated by FEMA for permanent restoration of the grid has been disbursed, according to data from the Puerto Rico Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency. Puerto Rico gets only 3 percent of its energy from renewables, nowhere near its policy targets. The only major new generation project to be built since Maria is the conversion of several diesel turbines to natural gas, and the island’s utility is pushing to use FEMA funds to build more. The grid remains so vulnerable that when Hurricane Fiona hit, five years after Maria almost to the day, it knocked power out to the entire island before it made landfall.

In Puerto Rico, there is desire, need, policy, and money. So why is there so little progress?

Juny’s Barber Shop at Castañer is powered by the microgrid from the Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña.

The rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s grid was slow from the start. The island’s utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), was effectively bankrupt when Maria hit and was overwhelmed by the extent of the damage. FEMA, coping with back-to-back disasters — hurricanes Harvey, Irma, then Maria in a matter of weeks — was overwhelmed, too. As the blackout dragged on, eventually becoming the longest in US history, it ramified across every aspect of life on the island with deadly consequences. Powerless cell towers impeded rescue and recovery efforts; water pumps stopped working, forcing people to turn to nearby rivers contaminated by shutdown sewage treatment plants; with medication spoiling and medical devices incapacitated, people turned to darkened hospitals unable to care for them. An estimated 3,000 people died.

For Puerto Ricans, the blackout was a stark reminder of their historical neglect by the federal government. A territory, Puerto Rico lacks voting representation in Congress or general elections. The island’s autonomy was further constrained in 2016 when Congress passed Promesa, the law that created a process for restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt and placed its budget under the oversight of a presidentially appointed board popularly referred to as “la junta.” After Maria, then-President Donald Trump made Puerto Rico’s second-tier status explicit, saying it shouldn’t depend on the federal government and that FEMA can’t be there forever.

Power was finally restored in August 2018, 11 months after Maria hit, but it was a patch job. Lines had been reattached to damaged poles, and generators still powered sections of the island. A more permanent restoration of the grid was supposed to follow, but aid was held up in Congress, then by unprecedented restrictions placed on its disbursement by the Trump administration. Other delays followed. Reconstruction was to occur under a post-Hurricane Sandy program meant to speed recovery and rebuild structures to be more “resilient,” but FEMA changed its cost-assessment methodology, then changed it back, so an estimated budget wasn’t arrived at until September 2020. Meanwhile, PREPA was undergoing simultaneous bankruptcy proceedings and privatization; the result was that, in 2021, a completely new company, Luma, came in to manage the island’s grid and its reconstruction. President Joe Biden lifted the Trump-era restrictions shortly after taking office, but the recovery has still barely begun.

In February, the Biden administration announced its latest attempt to accelerate Puerto Rico’s grid recovery. It was a memorandum of understanding between Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, and the heads of the departments of Energy (DOE), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Homeland Security, of which FEMA is a part. At its heart was a study, called PR100, that aims to create a roadmap for building a resilient, renewable grid.

At the highest level, the energy transition is simple: swap combustion technologies like cars and gas heaters for electricity while switching the sources of electricity to renewables. Studies show it’s technically feasible and economically desirable nationally, and in 2020, the Department of Energy found that Puerto Rico could potentially meet all its residential consumption needs with rooftop solar alone. But refining those broad strokes to the level needed to start building involves answering some complex technical questions. What combination of storage, solar, wind, and other intermittent sources gives you reliable power? How much long-distance transmission do you need if more power is generated locally? Which grid design is most resilient to wind, mudslides, wildfire, or daily wear and tear? How do you define resilience, anyway?

In the US, these questions fall to utilities and their local regulators, which often lack the resources and financial incentive to pursue them. In 2017, when the Los Angeles City Council mandated a renewable grid by 2045, the utility hired the Department of Energy, which has the expertise but not usually the mandate, to come in and figure out how.

That study is the model for Puerto Rico’s, except in this case, FEMA will pay DOE as part of the Maria recovery effort. After several months of meeting with an advisory group of more than 80 people, DOE came up with four scenarios, ranging from highly centralized generation on one end to extremely distributed on the other. Nuclear was ruled out; a scenario where no solar was placed on scarce agricultural land was added at the behest of local activists. Over the next year and a half, these designs will be run through models testing how they fare under future climate conditions, population changes, electric vehicle adoption, energy efficiency measures, and future storms.

But it is, administration officials are careful to say, just a study. It isn’t a policy recommendation, and it isn’t binding. Decisions about disaster recovery in the US, like most building decisions, are made locally. Though it is a federal study of how to spend federal funds in alignment with both the Biden administration and Puerto Rico policies, making the plan a reality will fall to the same institutions that have managed the grid recovery so far. As one viewer of the PR100 announcement asked, who will be responsible for implementing its findings?

“The caveat certainly is we are not the decision makers for the transmission investments or the distribution investments on the systems,” a DOE official replied. “Implementation would ultimately be the responsibility of the government of Puerto Rico, the public utility, the regulators, and public support.”

It’s a treacherous stretch for energy policies, not just in Puerto Rico. A lot of money is at stake, and complex bureaucratic processes provide ample opportunity for derailment and delay. Leah Stokes, in her book Short Circuiting Policy, likens it to “organized combat” between various factions battling it out in regulatory trench warfare. Many observers of the last five years of grid reconstruction worry the findings will simply be ignored.

“DOE specifically said we are not going to cross the line of implementation; we’re just going to show you what could be, and we’ll stop there,” said Cecilio Ortiz Garcia, a professor of political science formerly of the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, now at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and an advisor on the study. “Well, you know, that’s great. That’s great. And I wish you luck. Because our previous experience is these records end up in the garbage.”

Miriam Sierra Burgos, owner of La Alborada Bakery.

Bad Bunny has made a practice of yelling “fuck Luma” at concerts — a reference to the private firm that currently manages Puerto Rico’s grid. The biggest rapper in the world is regularly protesting a power company.

But the issue is decided in a more mundane arena. Housed in a curved concrete tower in downtown San Juan, the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau was created in 2014 to regulate PREPA. Puerto Rico’s equivalent of a state utility commission, the bureau vets proposed investments in the grid, which means that, among its many other responsibilities, it’s the entity that checks whether projects comply with Puerto Rico’s renewable goals before they are passed on to FEMA.

This has proven challenging. For nearly a century, PREPA had sole dominion over Puerto Rico’s energy system. The state-owned, vertically integrated monopoly electrified the island with oil-burning power plants and mountain-spanning transmission lines, playing a major role in Puerto Rico’s industrialization. But with the majority of its board and hundreds of senior staff appointed by the governor, it became captured by whichever political party was in charge, according to officials and the independent investigation into its debt.

The utility subsidized rates by borrowing aggressively and forgoing grid upgrades, sometimes lowering electricity prices before elections at the request of governors. Basic maintenance went undone. The result was a utility $9 billion in debt and an electric system vulnerable at every level: dependent on precarious transmission lines to carry power from antiquated power plants in the south to the population center in the north, threatened by untrimmed foliage and comprised of ancient components prone to failure even on clear days.

The same post-Maria legislation that set Puerto Rico’s renewable targets cleaved PREPA in two, separating generation from distribution and starting the process of contracting the operation of each half out to private companies. (Because federal aid can’t go to for-profit companies, PREPA would retain ownership of the assets.) After several larger and more established contenders dropped out of the bidding process, Luma, a consortium between Houston-based Quanta Services and Canadian-based ATCO, was brought in last year to operate the grid. The deal was criticized for lacking oversight or protections for PREPA’s unionized workers, many of whom protested the takeover and didn’t sign on with Luma.

This is the tangle of forces over which the bureau presides: a hollowed out but politically entrenched mid-bankruptcy utility with a tense relationship with a new grid operator struggling to manage a dilapidated system; renewable advocates and solar companies that want to see the grid transformed, as policy mandates; gas companies that have long eyed the island as an untapped future market; and 3 million people furious about poor service and high rates.

After Maria, these groups squared off before the bureau during a process known as integrated resource planning, where utilities outline their future investments and commissions check whether they meet energy needs and policy goals for the lowest cost. PREPA’s initial proposal was to build new gas plants, but local activists with support from larger environmental groups successfully lobbied for a plan that mandated the utility purchase renewables and phase out fossil fuels.

But PREPA proceeded to pursue gas anyway. Before the integrated resource plan was approved, the utility struck a $1.5 billion deal with the company New Fortress Energy to convert a diesel plant to gas — gas that New Fortress would provide through a floating import terminal it constructed in San Juan Harbor without federal regulatory approval. The energy bureau cited PREPA for noncompliance and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered New Fortress to apply for permits retroactively, but the infrastructure is built and running. Nor did PREPA stop pushing for gas once the resource plan was finalized. At the end of 2020, PREPA circumvented the bureau to submit a plan for gas plants to FEMA; the bureau called the plan “defiance” when it learned of it through the media, noting that it contained “$0.00 for renewable energy projects.”

PREPA’s latest argument is that it needs to spend more than $500 million in FEMA funds on new gas turbines in order to meet EPA clean air requirements and ensure “resilience” of the grid. The bureau has repeatedly rejected PREPA’s proposals, accusing the utility of “using studies and plans as collateral attacks” on the resource plan. Nevertheless, PREPA’s executive director brought the gas projects up again in his congressional testimony last month.

Meanwhile, PREPA dragged its feet on procuring the renewable generation that the resource plan mandated, only issuing the first request for proposals over a year past the deadline and after repeated reprimands from the bureau. Consequently, the first contracts were only signed this summer.

Frustrated with PREPA’s delays, the bureau seized control of the process last year and hired a contractor to handle future renewable procurements. The process appears to be moving faster since then, but PREPA’s foot-dragging tilted the scale in favor of fossil fuels. In August, the bureau told PREPA to start studying the feasibility of one of the gas plants it had long been pushing, saying that PREPA’s own slowness adding renewables to the grid may have made it necessary.

“The IRP [integrated resource plan] was such a wonderful win, but we’re seeing it get chipped away at little by little,” said Jenny Cassel, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which has been fighting the gas proposal. “This one little gas plant, what if we just prop up this other little diesel plant? What if we just throw in an LNG terminal? The more they pick away at the edges, by the time we get to the next IRP, they’re going to be like, ‘Well, we already built it, so why not keep going?’”

It’s not uncommon for utilities to resist the transition to renewables, whether because they have ties to the fossil fuel industry or out of institutional inertia and self-preservation. Distributed technologies like rooftop solar cut into their revenue while presenting novel challenges in managing the grid. With fewer lucrative fuel contracts to dole out and enormous plants to manage, it would be a very different role than the one PREPA has historically occupied.

“It’s a power thing,” said Eduardo Bhatia, former Puerto Rico Senate president. “They want to keep their monopoly over 100 percent of the energy on the island.”

PREPA did not respond to requests for comment, but Tomas Torres, who sits on PREPA’s board as the sole consumer representative, attributes PREPA’s resistance to its culture. “PREPA has always produced electricity by combustion. They don’t have expertise in renewables, not to the degree that is required to transform the system,” he said. “And they are doing nothing to find that expertise.”

PREPA may still control the generation, but it’s Luma that controls the grid, and renewable advocates worry that it, too, is rebuilding the old centralized system. A highly distributed grid would look different from a strengthened version of what Puerto Rico currently has, with fewer island-spanning transmission lines and more robust distribution networks. So far, Luma has mostly proposed refurbishing substations and rebuilding transmission lines. The company says these upgrades are needed to bring the grid to a level of basic functionality and will allow it to better integrate renewables. The company also touts the thousands of backlogged rooftop solar panels it has connected to the grid since taking over.

The direction of Luma’s restoration is hard to discern in part because it has been so slow to begin. The company only broke ground on its first FEMA-funded project this summer — replacing streetlights — and now has 13 others under construction. In an interview, Luma policy director Mario Hurtado said the processes established with FEMA in these early projects will allow future work to move faster.

What is clear is that Luma has been unable to stop the grid’s ongoing disintegration. In the year since it took over, outages have lengthened, according to the Energy Bureau, and rates have risen repeatedly. A substation fire knocked out power to the island in April, and a power plant malfunction caused another widespread outage in August. Luma blames the poor shape PREPA left the grid in and says that its focus on replacing and updating, rather than simply repairing, damaged infrastructure will result in fewer but longer outages and a sturdier grid in the long term.

It’s unclear how long Luma will have. Its contract is up for review at the end of November, and while officials and experts worry terminating it will lead to worse disruptions and no other operator willing to take its place, Luma’s image has plummeted as rates have risen and outages worsened. The rate increases may be the result of the rising cost of fuel for generation PREPA still controls, but it’s Luma’s name on the bill, Luma that was brought in to fix the grid, and onto Luma that public anger has fastened. Bad Bunny’s anti-Luma stance turned into an extended rant at a recent show before performing “El Apagón,” or “The Blackout.” The moment went viral. The August outage — dubbed “Hurricane Luma” — resulted in the fiercest protest yet calling for a reversal of the privatization. For the first time, the governor and resident commissioner joined the chorus of criticism.

The faltering recovery is all the more infuriating to renewable advocates because the solution seems so obvious: solar. It’s cheap, locally generated, dependent on neither the cross-island transmission lines that break with every storm nor the fuel supplies that get snarled when they do. Thousands of Puerto Ricans who can afford the upfront cost have put panels on their roofs for precisely these reasons. Watching the resources to transform the entire island slowly trickle out, so far mostly to patch the existing system, is enraging.

“This insistence on rebuilding the centralized grid instead of resilient energy is costing lives,” said the environmental lawyer Ruth Santiago shortly after the August blackout knocked out power to several hospitals.

For Santiago, resilience means embracing rooftop solar and battery systems, both to withstand storms and preserve scarce agricultural land. Her preferred approach is outlined in a modeling study released last year by the coalition Queremos Sol, or We Want Sun, of which she is a member. It found that a massive deployment of rooftop solar by 2035 could meet 75 percent of the island’s energy needs and cut rates roughly in half.

Santiago, who sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, has been making the case that FEMA should step in and ensure funds are spent in ways compatible not only with Puerto Rico’s renewable target but also with federal policies. Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to use their full capacity to reduce carbon emissions and increase resilience to climate change, she points out, and Congress passed legislation in 2018 mandating that FEMA provide funding for rebuilding “resilient” facilities. FEMA’s own strategic plan places climate resilience as a priority.

“Ultimately, the responsibility here is with FEMA because they have the funds and FEMA decides yes or no on these projects that are submitted,” Santiago said.

Others have been making the case as well. Sen. Chuck Schumer, Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other lawmakers have written repeatedly to FEMA urging the agency to ensure funds are spent on distributed renewable energy, as has Earthjustice on behalf of local environmental and community groups.

But FEMA isn’t built to exert this kind of control over the recovery process. Until well into the 20th century, the federal government had no official role to play in disaster response. Recovery fell to state and local governments, with Congress sending money on an ad hoc basis when necessary. Official recovery funds were set aside after World War II, and over the ensuing decades, more money and new functions like debris removal and temporary housing assistance were added, with responsibilities bouncing between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Defense until 1979, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was formed. Today, FEMA has more than 20,000 employees and manages tens of billions in disaster funds each year, but it retains key aspects of origins: state and local governments lead while FEMA, according to the Stafford Act that gives the agency its authority, “supports,” often by writing large checks from its Public Assistance fund to repair what has been damaged.

The result is a disaster recovery apparatus that is both notorious for its onerous paperwork and, in other ways, quite hands-off about how money is spent. A common catchphrase in the emergency management community is “federally supported, state managed, locally executed.” It’s an approach that does not always lend itself to climate adaptation. If a sheriff wants to spend $100 million rebuilding a prison on a sinking marsh, provided it meets FEMA’s documentation and cost-benefit requirements, there’s little FEMA can do. And if local officials do want to integrate climate adaptation into their rebuilding, it’s largely up to them to figure out how.

“We’re not energy policy experts,” said FEMA’s Puerto Rico director Jose Baquero. “We usually go by what the applicant wants to bring to the table. And as long as it’s eligible,” FEMA’s term for meeting strict cost-benefit analysis and documentation criteria, “we approve it.”

While wealthy and well-staffed governments like post-Hurricane Sandy New York can design adaptive rebuilding programs, smaller governments often struggle with the task, which is particularly challenging for a system as complex as an electric grid. The PR100 study, which Santiago also advises on, is meant to address some of these problems by using FEMA funds to pay the DOE to do the technical work. A major component of the study addresses the question of the most resilient grid design and, before that, what resilience even is.

Though Congress told FEMA to define “resilience” when it mandated it fund resilient projects, the agency has yet to finalize a regulatory definition. The definition given in its guide to climate resilience, “the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover rapidly from disruption,” is too broad to adjudicate between different grid designs. That could mean, as PREPA argues, building gas plants and hardening transmission lines, or it could mean a network of solar microgrids. (In an emailed statement, FEMA said it continues to work on an update incorporating the definition of resilience into regulations.) If anything, there are too many resilience metrics, and DOE is working to combine models that measure hardiness against things like wind and mudslides with models that measure how quickly service can be restored with other models that measure the impact on people when their power goes out.

While the study will bring clarity to the question of the most resilient grid, it will still just be a suggestion. The farthest FEMA will go is to say that Puerto Rico has the “flexibility” to use funds for renewables. Baquero said that agency officials have regular conversations with PREPA and Luma about how they can integrate adaptation into their work.

Much of the agency’s recent efforts to promote adaptation take this form: making funds available to those that want and have the wherewithal to apply for them. In theory, there are billions of dollars available in Puerto Rico for such projects, not just for PREPA and Luma. And after living through Maria and five years of faltering power, Puerto Ricans have a lot of ideas about what resilience means.

The post office in Castañer, Puerto Rico, is part of the community microgrid.

In the backyard of a single-story house on a forested hilltop half an hour south of San Juan sit two pale blue cisterns and a two-room concrete shelter. In one room are two cylindrical tanks that receive water from the nearby mountain before disbursing it to the town below. In the other room is the office of José Ramón Oyola, or “Cheo,” the local chef who volunteered to run the system, one of 242 community aqueducts that supply water to places too remote for the utility to service.

In 2016, Cheo took it upon himself to install a filtration system. This would require electricity, something for which he knew other aqueducts paid $2,000 a month and still suffered frequent outages, so he decided to install a solar and battery system and go off-grid. When Maria hit, his was the only source of clean water for miles around.

“The National Guard would come here to get water to distribute to the rest of the community,” recalled Cheo in July, sitting on the couch inside his office with his cousin Jose Rios, batteries and inverters lining the wall behind him. People traveled to get ice-filled soda bottles from his office’s freezer to store their medication. “It was an oasis,” Rios said.

But Cheo says his greatest accomplishment was navigating the bureaucracy. His trophies hang on the wall above his desk: certificates of environmental compliance; corporate registrations; and other documents he needed to get reimbursed by FEMA for post-Maria repairs (about half what they cost, he said) and that Puerto Rico’s other aqueducts will need if they are to get federal help acquiring solar panels of their own. Rios calls the long and winding process “the snake.”

While the larger grid reconstruction lags — in part because it has been so slow — desire for reliable power has driven an explosion in small-scale solar projects. There are the thousands of households that have installed panels and batteries on their homes but also more ambitious experiments in local energy generation: community microgrids; solar-powered emergency shelters; and off-grid water filtration systems.

There have been numerous attempts to reorient the federal disaster apparatus toward these sorts of proactive projects, what FEMA calls “pre-disaster mitigation.” Several programs distribute mitigation funds, but they are laden with documentation requirements and cost-benefit analyses designed to prevent fraud and maximize the efficient use of taxpayer money, but which cumulatively ensure that money is spent slowly — and requires money to get. A 2021 Washington Post investigation found that of $11 billion allocated for mitigation over the last decade, only $1.5 billion had been spent. In Puerto Rico, only 0.3 percent of the nearly $3 billion in allocated hazard mitigation grant funding has been disbursed, according to data from the Puerto Rico Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency, or COR3, which manages FEMA funds.

COR3 executive director Manuel Laboy said the agency septupled the staff handling mitigation grants to 30 last year and hired two contracting companies to help. Projects representing about 80 percent of the funds now have initial approval, according to COR3.

Rios, who is also president of the aqueduct association, estimates the island’s other systems could be outfitted with solar for about $100,000 each, but they lack the documentation and resources to apply for funding. The nonprofit Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico (FCPR) recently succeeded in getting a $1.8 million mitigation grant to assess the feasibility of adding solar panels to the aqueducts, and the lengths it had to go to help illustrate why money has been slow to flow.

First, FCPR had to make sure it had the funds to do the work while it awaited reimbursement, then hire a consultant to help put together the involved application: environmental protection and historic preservation assessments; budgets and work schedules; maps and photographs; descriptions of the costs and consequences of alternative projects; and a detailed benefit-cost analysis conducted using software that requires specialized training. Staff was assigned to manage the back-and-forth as the proposal went to COR3, which had questions, then to FEMA, which had more questions, each of which took several months to receive and answer and rerun the benefit-cost analysis for any resulting changes, until, 18 months later, they finally won the grant and could begin initial design work for each of the 242 projects. (This is not an unusual turnaround time, according to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO.) Cheo has been touring the island to help the aqueduct managers start getting their paperwork in order.

“In a macro form, you’ll see that obviously the intention is there to help,” said Hiram Williams of FCPR. “But those little steps and those little nuances just delay and delay and more delay your access to those funds.”

In addition to FEMA mitigation money, HUD, the other agency with a major role in disaster recovery, allocated more than $20 billion in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, including $2 billion specifically earmarked for improvements to the electric system. But requirements placed on the aid by the Trump administration, which the Biden administration lifted last year, delayed an intrinsically slow process. As the GAO found in 2019, the ad hoc nature of CDBG funding — a major stream of mitigation money — means that, after each disaster, HUD must wait for Congress to appropriate funds, then design rules for their use, then wait for the receiving state agency to design programs to use the money. After that, the result is often billions of dollars getting dropped on state agencies that then struggle to spend it.

Puerto Rico Department of Housing, also called Vivienda, had never managed CDBG funds before and had to launch a new department to manage them, plus hire 200 or so contractors to help, according to the agency. The agency has announced various programs, from solar incentives to funding for community microgrids and small-scale renewable generation, but they are all still in the drafting stage. The only program to launch so far has been one that installs solar panels and water heaters on 12,000 homes the agency itself repaired after Maria. According to Vivienda’s quarterly filings to HUD, it has installed panels on just 42 homes so far.

In an interview, Vivienda disaster recovery deputy secretary Maretzie Díaz Sánchez attributed the slow rollout to the Trump-era restrictions on the funds, continued back-and-forth with HUD over program design, and problems contracting with solar installers. She said Vivienda expects to have guidelines for the other energy programs completed in several months.

There’s widespread frustration at the slow pace, largely because there are so many projects in the planning or pilot stages that could be eligible. The city of Caguas, near the Pedro Calixto aqueduct, drew up a plan for a solar-powered community center with a medical refrigerator and communications equipment and submitted it to Vivienda. “That was 2020. It’s 2022 and they say they are still evaluating it,” said Guillermo Rivera, the municipality’s environmental director.

With funds slow to flow, Puerto Ricans have turned to an assortment of unrelated federal grants, philanthropy, and business. The less paperwork-intensive covid American Rescue Plan funds are a popular source.

In the San Juan suburb of Bayamón, the city launched a program in April to provide residents who depend on medical devices with solar and battery backup systems. The municipality, the second largest in Puerto Rico, loses power weekly, endangering the area’s many elderly residents who depend on oxygen devices and adjustable beds. Bayamón has distributed 250 systems so far and has a waiting list more than 3,000 people long.

“Every person on the island should have a solar panel system, because the whole island is dependent on an electric system that is not within their control,” said Manuel J. Felix Ortiz, Bayamón’s emergency manager.

The city is also outfitting its emergency department with solar panels, using a DOE grant, and hopes to do the same for its hospitals, police stations, communications systems, and any other buildings it can equip. “We want to be off the grid,” said Ortiz. “It’s going to save money, but it’s also going to create resilience through energy independence.”

Asked how the grid would fare if another hurricane hit, he laughed. “It goes out if there are two drops of water.”

Power lines that run through Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Days after the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico. It was a far weaker storm, but with the grid still fragile, it was enough to knock out power to the entire island once again.

As the hurricane approached, Miriam Sierra Burgos closed her bakery in Castañer and went home, where the rest of her family had gathered. The new storm summoned memories of the last one, particularly for Sierra’s grandchildren, whose house Maria destroyed.

“You have to be a grandmother and a psychologist to keep them from getting depressed,” she said. “You’re reliving a movie you wanted to forget.”

As Fiona churned overhead, water came in through a window, but her house escaped the worst of the flooding that devastated other parts of the island. The afternoon after the storm passed, she returned to the bakery, where residents had already begun lining up for food and ice.

The next several days were overcast, and the solar panels only created enough power to operate after 10AM, so she had to use her generator when opening up. But given the diesel shortages, she said she wouldn’t have been able to stay open long if not for the microgrid. The post office, barbershop, and ice cream parlor all had enough power to operate entirely off solar.

“The ice cream machine, frappe machine, coffee, air conditioning — we’re running everything like always,” said Angel Mendez, owner of Machete ice cream. Business has been good, he said, and people have been asking how they, too, can get connected to the system.

Two weeks after Fiona, Luma had restored power to most of the island, but over 100,000 households were still without power, mostly in the hard-hit south and remote mountain areas. As the blackout continued in Castañer, the intersection with the microgrid became a hub for residents looking to charge their phones and flashlights. Though Fiona was a weaker storm, this part feels familiar to Sierra.

“It feels like the same experience after,” she said. “It feels like the government has lacked attention toward this town.”

Other solar projects appeared to be working as designed. At the Caguas aqueduct, Cheo activated the emergency WhatsApp group he’d started to begin digging out and repairing aqueduct hoses damaged in mudslides. The day after Fiona, the system was filtering water for triple the number of people as after Maria, Cheo said, as Fiona’s more intense flooding damaged more of the surrounding water systems. “A lot of people from different towns have been coming to the oasis,” he said.

Ruth Santiago was supposed to testify before Congress in late September, part of a hearing on the state of Puerto Rico’s grid recovery five years after Maria, but it had been postponed due to Fiona. She had planned to use the opportunity to push for FEMA to mandate its money go toward a resilient, renewable grid. Instead, she was home in Salinas, hers one of the few houses in her neighborhood with power thanks to a rooftop solar system she installed several years ago.

Like many renewable advocates on the island, she is both frustrated that the transformation of the grid remains just out of reach and optimistic that it seems closer than ever. She sees the PR100 study and FEMA’s increasingly forceful hints that it should be followed as a positive sign, even if they remain only hints. But the path ahead is still rife with pitfalls. PREPA continues to push for gas. Luma continues its slow patching of the grid. Future solar projects still have to clear the oversight board, the siting process, and other potential chokepoints.

Maybe, Santiago said, Fiona will provide the necessary nudge. The fact that, five years after Maria, a far weaker hurricane could once again black out the entire island should serve as unignorable proof that these storms will keep coming and Puerto Rico’s current grid will keep succumbing to them.

“This should serve as an awakening,” she said. “We can expect more of this, and we really have to do things differently.”

  • Five years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s electric grid is still prone to regular outages and extremely vulnerable to storms. Hurricane Fiona, a far weaker storm, knocked out power to the entire island in September.
  • Puerto Ricans pay twice the US’s average rate for electricity for by far the worst service in the country.
  • Over $3 billion in federal funds were spent restoring power after Maria, but a more permanent rebuilding of the grid was supposed to follow. Approximately $12 billion was allocated for it, but very little of it has been spent.
  • Of the $9.5 billion allocated by FEMA for electric permanent work, less than 2 percent has been disbursed. Of the $3 billion in FEMA hazard mitigation grant funding allocated, 0.3 percent has been disbursed.
  • After Maria, solar power was widely seen as a solution to high energy costs driven by the price of imported fuel and the grid’s vulnerability to storms. Approximately 40,000 people have installed solar panels on their roofs since the storm, and numerous communities and organizations have launched local solar projects.
  • In 2019, Puerto Rico passed legislation mandating the island convert to 100 percent renewable energy — an opportunity to redesign the island’s energy system to be cleaner, cheaper, and more resilient. But Puerto Rico’s utility delayed the deployment of renewables and continues to push for using federal funds to build gas plants.
  • In an effort to facilitate the recovery, the Department of Energy launched a project this year, funded by FEMA, to study the pathways to building the renewable, resilient grid mandated in Puerto Rico’s policies. However, the study isn’t binding. Observers and participants worry its findings will be ignored.
  • Activists and lawmakers have asked FEMA to mandate funds be used for renewable energy, citing Puerto Rico’s policies, President Biden’s executive orders on climate, and a congressional mandate that FEMA fund “resilient” projects. FEMA says it lacks the authority to do so.

Written by Josh Dzieza
This news first appeared on https://www.theverge.com/c/features/23404252/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-electric-grid-solar-panels-prepa-luma-fema under the title “When Will Puerto Rico Have Power?”. Bolchha Nepal is not responsible or affiliated towards the opinion expressed in this news article.