A Call for Energy Justice in Puerto Rico
The following op-ed by Catie Eiref is one of five standout essays written as part of an assignment for the Columbia MPH Core and published online on the Columbia Mailman news page.
September 18, 2022, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Fiona. Nearly the entire island lost energy, leaving 1.5 million residents in the dark and over $2 billion in damages. Over two weeks later, 100,000 were still without power. Fiona hit around the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a disaster that caused nearly 3,000 deaths and, in some areas, an eleven-month-long blackout, the longest blackout in U.S. history. For the residents of Puerto Rico, catastrophic power outages have become far too normal.
These outages are no coincidence, but rather the outcome of archaic energy infrastructure and a poorly managed system. Currently, the island runs on a highly centralized grid with one major power line. If this line is damaged, the entire island’s grid falls apart. These failures could be solved through the implementation of decentralized renewable energy.
Power outages, especially ones that remain unfixed for long periods of time, threaten the health, safety, and well-being of the entire island. Not only are businesses and economies interrupted, but critical energy to hospitals, homes, and sanitary infrastructure also becomes less stable. Refrigerating critical medications like insulin, maintaining life-supporting care, and simply accessing safe and drinkable water also become a challenge.
These outages are no coincidence, but rather the outcome of archaic energy infrastructure and a poorly managed system. Currently, the island runs on a highly centralized grid with one major power line. If this line is damaged, the entire island’s grid falls apart. Failures like this could be solved through the implementation of decentralized renewable energy.
After Hurricane Maria destroyed the island’s electrical network in 2017, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) allocated roughly $10 billion towards rebuilding the obsolete power grid on the island, setting a goal of total modernization. This money is now managed by LUMA, a private Canadian and mainland U.S.-based company that has been tasked with managing Puerto Rico’s energy. Since signing their 15-year contract, LUMA has been channeling the FEMA funds toward restoring the expensive, centralized, fossil fuel-powered grid. However, this has been met with opposition. Even before Hurricane Fiona, local groups gathered in the capital of San Juan to protest against LUMA due to their rising energy costs and random power outages. Additionally, New York attorney general, Letitia James, has been calling for a federal investigation of LUMA’s money allocation for system emergencies. Additionally, the U.S. energy commerce committee and New York Attorney General have been calling for a federal investigation of LUMA’s money allocation for system emergencies
The island’s energy system runs nearly completely on imported fossil fuels, and the increasing costs of energy are creating an economic burden on residents. Systems that have been perpetuated by LUMA. The irony is, Puerto Rico sees direct sun almost every day of the year, making solar energy one of the cheapest, yet unharnessed commodities available. The demand for solar energy in Puerto Rico is quite clear, with over 2,800 new solar projects each month, and the 9th highest rate of municipal solar panel installation in the U.S. Additionally, Puerto Ricans have voted for a public energy policy with the goal of becoming 40 percent renewable by 2025, and 100 percent renewable by 2050. Under current LUMA projects, the island’s energy remains only 3 percent renewable. Reforming the system towards solar utilization would not only be cheaper in the long run but also align with the sustainable energy goals set by the communities.
Reallocating some FEMA funds toward solar installations could begin to create community-centered decentralized solar grids. This would decrease reliance on the archaic grid which continues to fail communities while also working toward energy independence and justice.
Adjuntas, a small mountain town in the center of the island, is an example of how energy independence can benefit the island. Since 1999, the community has been operating on a solar energy microgrid, independent from the rest of the island’s fragile grid. This microgrid continues to sustain the community at a much lower cost than the fossil fuel-powered centralized grid. Additionally, when a disaster like Hurricane Fiona strikes, the lights stay on.
Some may argue against decentralized renewable energy on the basis of affordability. The average annual household income in Puerto Rico is just over $21,000, and the cost to install solar panels to a home’s roof is roughly $10,000, making upfront investments vastly inaccessible to many. However, Queremos Sol, a Puerto Rican energy coalition, has proposed plans to address this financing gap. The local nonprofit argues for the allocation of FEMA funds toward local governments for energy projects. Queremos Sol is advocating for the communities in Puerto Rico to have a voice in their energy future. Rather than leaving it in the hands of private entities like LUMA, they are working toward creating a platform that empowers communities to have a say in the development of reliable and affordable energy solutions.
Energy justice cannot begin until the communities who face the burden of inaction begin to have a voice in their fate. Solving the energy crisis in Puerto Rico must start by first addressing the perpetuated systems of colonial rule in Puerto Rico. The privatization of energy and lack of receptive action from LUMA is a manifestation of the lack of care and disinvestment in the greater system. Allowing Puerto Ricans to determine how the Puerto Rican energy system is built, funded, and managed, is the first step in creating a justice-oriented energy future that uplifts the needs and wants of the people it services.
Catie Eiref is a first-year MPH student in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences.