Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane, made landfall in southwestern Puerto Rico on September 19, 2022, one day shy of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria. Fiona blew furiously with maximum wind speeds over 100 miles per hour and dumped up to 25 inches of rain in many of the mountain and central rural areas of the Puerto Rican archipelago. Currently, entire towns across Puerto Rico are flooded (and in some places, it looks like fuel is floating in the waters around flooded residences).
We are seeing “the impact of climate change and the failure of infrastructure.”
Ramón Cruz, president of Sierra Club
Fiona caught Puerto Rico’s government utterly unprepared, leaving the population unprotected. But it was not for lack of warnings from scientists, Puerto Rican communities—and their advocates—in the island and the diáspora. We warned time and time again that the recovery process throughout the five years since Hurricane Maria was incomplete and inadequate, that privatizing the electricity transmission and distribution grid, and continuing to burn fossil fuels for electricity production were terrible ideas that would make Puerto Ricans pay more for an ever more unreliable power service.
But all of those warnings, backed by climate resilience and renewable energy studies (for example, the Puerto Rico Council on Climate Change’s recommendations to strengthen measures to protect from more intense hurricanes and Queremos Sol’s Solar Integration Study), and by the experiences of community-based organizations who led their own communities’ recovery since Maria, were ignored. Indeed, the government wasted five years, as Ingrid Vila Biaggi from CambioPR said recently during a discussion on the situation in Puerto Rico.
“Tragically, this is the perfect moment to have this conversation.”
Frances Colón, Center for American Progress
What happened between Maria and Fiona?
The federal response to Hurricane Maria, from the get-go, was plagued with inefficiencies and derisiveness towards Puerto Ricans. Delays and high rejection rates of individual applications for FEMA assistance were commonplace. The large amount of humanitarian aid that was collected by aid organizations and the Puerto Rican diaspora in the US and globally sat for months in Puerto Rico’s ports or, inexplicably, was allowed to spoil in storage. All of this was in addition to the long list of actions by the previous administration that kept Puerto Ricans in crisis after Maria.
As Dr Yarimar Bonilla of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY just said, the federal government and the federally-appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) insisted on privatizing the distribution of the electricity grid before it could be repaired or modernized, a move that went into effect in June 2021 when LUMA Energy assumed operations over Puerto Rico’s electricity transmission and distribution operations. Since the start of operations, LUMA has lacked sufficient qualified personnel, provided little transparency, and there has been no effective oversight of its operations, all deficiencies that have contributed to the total blackout during Hurricane Fiona.
The electricity generation system did not fare any better. The Puerto Rico legislature took a step in the right direction in 2019 by passing a Public Policy Energy Act, mandating the adoption of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, with interim goals of 40 percent by 2025 and 60 percent by 2040. However, the LUMA contract lacks obligations or incentives for the grid operator to comply with the energy law. Instead, it instructs LUMA to align use of federal funds with the Puerto Rico grid modernization plan—which mainly mandates increased methane gas use—and PREPA’s 10-year plan, which excludes any significant, short-term renewable energy development.
All of this also runs counter to renewable energy requirements in the Integrated Resource Plan developed by the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau—the territory’s energy regulatory commission formed in 2014— as well as President Biden’s climate and public health policies, such as the Justice 40 Initiative, and recent executive orders.
At stake are the historic $9.4 billion awarded by FEMA to rebuild the electrical grid as well as the viability of life in Puerto Rico under the certainty that stronger, wetter, and slower hurricanes will continue to threaten the archipelago.
Puerto Ricans face rising vulnerability, energy poverty, displacement
After seven price hikes by LUMA since 2020, Puerto Ricans now pay about 34 cents per KWh while the US national average is about 15 cents per KWh. 63.5 percent of the LUMA residential bill for August shown below is a fuel surcharge—that is, consumers are footing the bill for PREPA and LUMA’s refusal to move away from fossil fuel imports.
By this and other metrics, energy burdens are already higher in Puerto Rico compared with the rest of the US. The average energy burden for electricity in Puerto Rico is higher than the US average for all income groups, but among households with the lowest incomes (i.e., earning 0-30 percent of the Area Median Income) it is the largest, at a whopping 26 percent of household income, vs the US national average of 12 percent.
Tax breaks and other incentives created by recent Puerto Rican laws have lured real estate investors to the archipelago, driving housing prices up and displacing Puerto Ricans while luxury beachfront condos proliferate, clearly indicating that gentrification is underway in the archipelago.
What should be done?
Puerto Rican climate and resilience scientists, renewable energy experts, legal scholars, and community advocates are asking both the federal and Puerto Rican governments to make good use of the $9.4 billion dollars available for the grid reconstruction. Here are a few things that need to happen:
- Cancel the LUMA contract: LUMA’s supplemental contract will expire on November 30, 2022, at which time the consortium can exercise a clause to rescind the contract if Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt is not restructured by then. This provides an opportunity for Gov. Pierluisi to prevent the longer, 15-year term contract from entering into effect. LUMA has demonstrated that it is not capable of keeping the lights on even before a hurricane threatened the archipelago, and this ill-advised deal has meant that 80 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power, and hundreds of thousands without water, two days after the hurricane. The governor needs to prioritize the wellbeing of the Puerto Rican people and act to prevent Puerto Rico from being locked into a decade-and-a-half electric transmission and distribution arrangement that will continue to threaten people’s lives, expenditures and wellbeing, especially with the likelihood of more hurricanes hitting the archipelago.
- Ensure that reconstruction projects comply with environmental protections: FEMA recently ruled that proposed utility repair, replacement, and realignment projects in Puerto Rico will have no significant impact on the environment, thereby eliminating the requirement for environmental impact statements. More troubling, FEMA did so without a thorough analysis of renewable energy and microgrid alternatives. Although multiple Puerto Rican and national organizations and coalitions have written multiple letters, reports, and comments and called on FEMA to reverse this decision, they have not been heeded. FEMA’s actions are out of step with the agency’s own framework for public participation and principles for rebuilding with climate resilience in mind.
- Eliminate the FOMB: The FOMB (“La Junta” in Puerto Rico) needs to go. La Junta is a fundamentally anti-democratic institution that has more power than the democratically-elected government in Puerto Rico. And it has consistently prioritized the interests of the holders of the $72 billion Puerto Rico debt over those of the Puerto Rican people. La Junta’s existence and the austerity measures it has mandated in Puerto Rico are one of the main impediments to creating a resilient recovery for Puerto Rico. La Junta encapsulates “the powerlessness of people on the island to make major decisions about their own lives and their own destinies.”
- Invest federal funds on a resilient grid reconstruction: CambioPR, in collaboration with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), experts in energy resource planning and transmission and distribution, and Puerto Rican labor and environmental advocates, have demonstrated in a recent study that distributed solar can both lower power costs and keep the lights on when future hurricanes hit the archipelago: ”[I]n 15 years, 100 percent of homes could meet their critical needs with solar and we could generate 75 percent of [Puerto Rico’s] electricity from distributed renewable energy”, according to Ingrid Vilá Biaggi. The billions of federal dollars available to Puerto Rico for recovery need to be invested in a grid that can with help protect lives in Puerto Rico.
- Rebuild the transportation infrastructure: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) has allocated $1.1 billion for bridges and roadways in Puerto Rico. This infrastructure needs to be rebuilt and improved to withstand not just the catastrophic flooding levels seen during Hurricanes Maria and Fiona, but worse flood conditions that will continue to destroy infrastructure and threaten lives if we don’t reduce the emissions that are driving the climate crisis.
The reconstruction in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria remains incomplete, and now Hurricane Fiona has worsened conditions for more than 3 million Puerto Ricans, most of which have no power and water. Their homes remain flooded, trees and power lines are down, roads and bridges have collapsed or been washed away. The situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly, and the capacity of the Puerto Rican government, PREPA, and LUMA to restore power and other essential services has been hampered by ill-advised decisions in the five years since Hurricane Maria.
After the emergency situation in the island is stabilized, reconstruction efforts will take place. Those efforts need to prioritize a decentralized electric grid that can keep the lights on when future hurricanes hit the island and that is based on renewable energy, and an infrastructure that can withstand the extreme winds and rains that the climate crisis dumps on Puerto Rico.
- Taller Salud: shorturl.at/dmuxY
- Brigada Solidaria del Oeste: https://www.facebook.com/brigadasolidariaoeste/
- Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico: https://ayudalegalpr.org/
- Furia, Inc.: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/FuriaInc