Saturday, October 28, 2017

Energy Justice for Puerto Rico: Abandon Fossil Fuels and Adopt Renewables

Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico's fossil fuel powered energy grid making this an ideal time to redraw the territory's energy map using renewable energy. More than 90 percent of Puerto Rico's energy is derived from fossil fuels and around 70 percent of the territory's electricity is generated from imported oil.

Energy is at the heart of the island's economic woes. Electricity is so expensive that some of the territory's leaders have singled out dependence on foreign oil as the greatest barrier to economic development. Moving towards renewable energy is crucial to Puerto Rico's future.

The energy situation in Puerto Rico is a long-standing problem that has been effectively eradicated by Hurricane Maria. The situation on the island is dire with serious water and food shortages. More than a month after the storm hit 80 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power and the most optimistic estimates indicate it will be months before power is restored.

To make matters worse flagrant climate denial from Trump and the GOP are destined to exacerbate an already dangerous situation. The fossil fuel industry continues to extract emissions causing hydrocarbons. Scientists confirm that fossil fuels are a leading driver of global warming which is known to exacerbate extreme weather like storms and hurricanes.

When Trump visited the island he handed out paper towels and comforted people by saying Hurricane Maria wasn’t a "real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina. As indication of just how out-of-touch he is he told one family to "have a good time". He seemed to be more concerned about the impact of the disaster on his budget than he is with the welfare of the territory's citizenry. Make no mistake about it people in Puerto Rico continue to suffer and die. According to one report almost 1000 people (911) have died since the hurricane made landfall.

Despite the Trump administration's abject failure to assist Puerto Rico either morally or materially, Trump gave himself a 10 on 10 for his efforts. According to leaked PR documents the government tried to sell the public on the idea that there has been rapid relief a point refuted by almost all the evidence on the ground. Trump took the time to attack San Juan's mayor because she had the audacity to refute his mischaracterization of the situation.

Prior to Hurricane Maria the US territory got most of its energy from fossil fuels. This is a problem for pollution and climate considerations. However, we were seeing some signs of progress including a number of wind and solar projects.

In 2012 a new wind farm consisting of 13 turbines capable of powering 9,000 homes was completed in Naguabo, eastern Puerto Rico.  The growth of solar projects in Puerto Rico has pushed sun powered energy past wind for the first time. In the first sixth months of 2017, solar surpassed wind as Puerto Rico’s top producer of renewable energy. There is the solar farm in Humaca and another outside of Guayama, called the Ilumina Project and the giant Loiza solar field that was built by TSK Solar.

As reviewed in the UN Climate Action Program, in 2012 the government of Puerto Rico set renewable energy goals of 12 percent by 2015 and 15 percent by 2020. According to one report one-third of Puerto Rico's total energy consumption in 2006 could have been met by clean energy.

Puerto Rico is working towards sustainability in other ways as well. Republic Services provides the territory with recycling and solid waste collection, transfer and disposal services. Republic Services is a world leading recycling operation who has earned a place on the prestigious CDP Climate A-List.

Sustainability, particularly around the issue of water stewardship has been an important issue on the island especially among the territory's young people. In 2013, Amira Odeh won the Brower Youth Award for initiating the first student sustainability movement focused on water consumption and plastics pollution. In 2015 the US territory of Puerto Rico passed Benefit Corporation legislation that legally mandates companies take into account non-financial considerations when making decisions.

However, clean energy is the key to sustainability in Puerto Rico. The island is an ideal location for renewables because it has abundant sun, wind, and water at its disposal. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of energy would provide a stable source of power that would eliminate GHG emissions, along with air and water pollution.

The following video offers some sense of the scale of the disaster in Puerto Rico. This is truly one of the worst humanitarian disasters in US history. The video from across the island shows washed out bridges, flattened homes, and broken infrastructure.

It also reveals how Hurricane Maria devastated a wind farm in Naguabo and damaged Puerto Rico's solar industry including the destruction of the island's second largest solar farm in Humacao.


Any serious attempt to prepare for future storms must take climate change into consideration. The connection between climate change and storms is hard to refute. A large body of evidence clearly shows that global warming exacerbates storms and other forms of extreme weather.

In the wake of Maria and the spate of hurricanes that struck the US recently Craig Fugate, the former FEMA chief told the Trump administration that they have to look at the science of climate change if they want smarter disaster relief. As reported by Mother Jones, Fugate has proposed that we need to honestly evaluate climate threats and "build for future risk".

Trump does not seem to be listening. He has signed executive orders that reverse federal infrastructure that factors flooding risks. Trump's changes to the federal flood insurance program actually encourages development in vulnerable areas. 

Fugate said natural hazards, "become natural disasters when we’re pricing risk too low. We’re putting vulnerable populations and your tax dollars at risk." Fugate holds the common sense view that Puerto Rico should plan to rebuild infrastructure that is capable of withstanding another Maria.

We can design renewable forms of energy to withstand hurricanes as evidenced by the giant Loiza solar field which survived largely unscathed due to TSK Solar's hurricane resilient solar panels. These panels are built several meters off the ground to avoid floods and reinforced to withstand a category 5 hurricane.

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