Much of Puerto Rico is still without power after Hurricane Fiona hit the island on September 19. The storm revealed how vulnerable the territory’s electrical system still is five years after Hurricane Maria plunged it into an 11-month blackout, the longest in American history. – and led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.
Despite billions of dollars in federal aid, “very little” was done after Hurricane Maria to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid, Sen. Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said on the Senate floor. The island’s electrical system, long neglected as the territory’s debts soared, has remained “obsolete for nearly 50 years,” Schumer added.
Still, some see signs of hope. Over the past five years, about 50,000 solar and battery power systems have been installed in homes in Puerto Rico, says Chris Rauscher, senior director of public policy at Sunrun, the largest residential solar company in the United States. . And nearly all of that equipment appears to have continued to supply power while the island’s central power system went dark, according to market participants and industry watchers.
Solar companies say their technology will continue to improve
Climate change is making hurricanes wetter and more powerful, increasing the risks to electrical reliability in places like Puerto Rico. This strengthens the case for further investment in solar home systems, says Rauscher.
“It shows that renewables combined with storage… are really the fundamentals of a clean recovery that we really need to focus on on the island and elsewhere,” he says.
John Berger, chief executive of Sunnova, another major solar company, agrees, calling Puerto Rico “a window to the future.”
“The technology is just physically and fundamentally better” than the traditional power system, Berger says. “And that’s not going to change.”
Puerto Rico seeks to shake off its addiction to fossil fuels
Puerto Rico’s aging electric grid relies almost exclusively on the fossil fuels it ships, and electricity prices on the island are far higher than in other parts of the United States.
The territory decided to change that in 2019, setting a goal to get all of its electricity from renewable sources by mid-century, up from just 3% last year.
In February, the US government and Puerto Rico signed an agreement to expedite work on the island’s electrical system.
“One of my top priorities as Governor of Puerto Rico since taking office has been to ensure that Puerto Rico’s energy transformation progresses at a steady and reliable pace,” the Governor said. Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, in a statement in February. “I will ensure that every federal fund allocated to Puerto Rico and allocated to rebuilding the electric grid is used effectively and efficiently.”
But big challenges still hang over the island. Perhaps chief among them is the fate of Puerto Rico’s electric power authority, which is bankrupt.
There have also been delays in implementing federal disaster assistance on the island, in part due to political fights in Congress and restrictions put in place by the Trump administration.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has committed about $28 billion to help Puerto Rico recover from the 2017 hurricanes. Only $5.3 billion, or 19%, of that $28 billion was spent by the government of Puerto Rico in August, according to the US Government Accountability Office.
Puerto Rico must rebuild in the face of more storms
Unspent aid “is the hardest part of rebuilding,” Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón told NPR.
“[A] a lot of rebuilding is still needed,” she said. “And now, on top of that, we’ve come back here…and at the end of the day, the hurricane season isn’t over yet.”
Companies like Sunrun and Sunnova are betting that this latest disaster will help spur faster investment in small-scale renewables. If nothing else, customers became “sick and tired of not having power,” Rauscher says.
“The next storm after this – and it will come, I don’t know if it’s next week or next year or two years from now, but it will come – we’ll be in even better shape than we are in right now,” Berger said.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.