Solar power offers Puerto Ricans a lifeline, but remains an elusive goal

Solar power offers Puerto Ricans a lifeline, but remains an elusive goal

As Puerto Rico reeled from its worst power outage in months, one that left virtually all of the island’s 1.5 million customers without power for days, the city of Adjuntas was an oasis.

On a Thursday morning in early April, with school closed, children filled seats in an air-conditioned movie theater at a community center, a pizzeria prepared its kitchen for lunch, and the local barbershop greeted customers looking for a fast cut.

The contrast shows why Adjuntas, a community of about 18,000 in the densely forested mountains of central Puerto Rico, has become a showcase for how solar power could address one of the island’s most vexing problems: a grid of energy that has struggled to recover after Hurricane Maria all but destroyed it came out in 2017.

Thanks in large part to the work of Casa Pueblo, a conservation nonprofit, about 400 homes and businesses in Adjuntas are solar powered, including more than a dozen stores that are connected to a small grid powered by solar energy. Sun. With battery backup, the systems can operate even in a power outage, keeping businesses open and turning the organization’s headquarters into a haven for people using power-hungry medical devices.

“When you have energy security, you take a load off the employees and the families that come to the business,” said Ángel Irizarry Feliciano, owner of Lucy’s Pizza, which continued to operate during the power outage. “It was a relief that we were able to continue to provide a service to our people without interruption or having to reduce our hours.”

But the situation in Adjuntas also highlights how far the rest of Puerto Rico has to go with renewables, despite all the seemingly obvious reasons for it: the island’s long, sunny days; its need to import all other fuels, which makes electricity generation more expensive; and, of course, its constantly failing power grid.

Although the number of solar installations has increased in recent years, solar energy accounts for only 2.5 percent of Puerto Rico’s total energy production, government data shows. The rest comes from plants fueled by imported natural gas, coal and oil, with another slice from wind power.

Many Puerto Ricans can’t afford to spend the $27,000 a typical solar power system might cost, and the government, which emerged from an unprecedented bankruptcy in March, only began setting concrete renewable energy goals in 2019. Some who can affording to add solar panels to their homes has been deterred by the chaotic state of Puerto Rico’s finances, in particular a proposal to impose a charge on solar customers to help shore up the public utility.

Casa Pueblo’s facilities are paid for with money from foundations, both in Puerto Rico and abroad, and from sales of coffee grown in Adjuntas. Since Hurricane Maria, the organization has expanded its push for solar energy adoption to communities in other parts of the island.

“We need a public policy to create a business model that focuses on helping you generate your own energy, not just one that provides energy,” said Arturo Massol Deyá, associate director of Casa Pueblo. “People are tired of constant power outages and their appliances breaking down.”

After the most recent blackout, which began on April 6 after a fire at a power plant in the southwestern city of Guayanilla, power was not fully restored for four days. The island-wide shutdown set off a cascade of problems: Many also had water cut off, hospitals had to turn to backup generators, and schools and businesses closed.

The blackout sparked protests and calls for the government to cancel its contract with Luma Energy, the private power company that took over the utility last June with a promise to restore the grid. The governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia, rejected the idea. But constant power outages, along with monthly electricity bills that have jumped 46 percent in the last year, have increased frustration with the utility, which is run by a Canadian-American company under a 15-year contract signed last year.

“While some politicians choose to ignore the state of the power grid Luma inherited and assign blame without facts, we will continue to focus on Puerto Rico’s energy future,” Luma said in a statement to The New York Times.

Puerto Rico has the ambition to do more with renewable energy. In 2019, the government passed a clean energy law that requires 100 percent of the island’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2050 and includes promises to use federal money to build renewable energy projects that reach low-income communities. .

The board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances approved 18 renewable energy projects in March with the goal of increasing clean energy production to 23 percent of the island’s total by the end of 2024. In February, the US Department of Energy The US began a two-year study on the energy of Puerto Rico. Clean energy options. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have allocated $12 billion to modernize the island’s energy industry.

Even when proposing such an ambitious target for renewable energy, the oversight board raised the possibility of charging consumers who have solar panels on their homes by making them pay for the electricity they generate.

Under the proposal, which was made as a way to help pay off a $9 billion debt to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, new solar customers would have had to pay for every kilowatt of solar power they generated. Because the proposal also included a plan to raise conventional power rates, the governor scrapped it in March. But solar energy advocates say they are concerned that as negotiations for a new deal continue, the charge, which some refer to as the solar tax, could be revived.

“We need to find a way to deal with the debt,” said Francisco Berrios Portela, director of the energy policy program at the Puerto Rico Department of Economic Development and Commerce. “But it cannot be by adding a tax to the generation that produces this type of system that we are promoting.”

Uncertainty over whether they will have to pay more for a solar energy system on a home or business has deterred consumers like María Lizardi Córdova, an accountant who lives in San Juan. Ms. Lizardi Córdova can see a neighbor’s solar panels from her bedroom window and knows many other people in the neighborhood who have decided to invest in solar energy, but she believes it is still too early to make the transition. same.

“This is not the right time, and it has to do with all the uncertainty about any additional cost to solar and what my expenses would be,” said Ms. Lizardi Córdova. “The situation is further complicated by debt.”

For Puerto Ricans with medical needs like refrigeration for insulin or electricity for dialysis machines, power outages can be treacherous, and the benefits of a solar-powered backup system are overwhelming.

In Adjuntas, Casa Pueblo runs a special project that provides solar panels for people with medical needs, like Juan Molina Reyes, a farmer who grows bananas, coffee, and oranges.

Mr. Molina Reyes’ father, Luis, 75, suffered a stroke in August and needs assistance breathing. He says he went through seven gas generators trying to keep his father’s oxygen concentrator running when the power went out.

That changed in February, when the family of Mr Molina Reyes received solar panels after seeking help from the charity. He said that he felt lucky to have them.

“It was exasperating knowing that if the system ever failed, my father would die,” said Mr. Molina Reyes. “It was an uphill battle.”

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