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lunedì 20 Settembre 2021

Is Puerto Rico’s Renewable Energies Transition Fueling or Fueled by Disasters?

In breve

  • http://gty.im/1169577160 http://gty.im/1194951856 http://gty.im/1194951856 http://gty.im/1192770667 L’infrastruttura energetica di Porto Rico è stata fortemente danneggiata dal passaggio dell’Uragano Maria nel 2017.
  • Il disastro del 2017 ha accelerato il processo di transizione energetica verso le rinnovabili in quanto l’energia solare ha dimostrato essere molto resiliente.
  • Il futuro della transizione energetica a Porto Rico dipende dalla dominazione della politica energetica del governo federale dato che lo status politico di Porto Rico limita le sue possibilità di sviluppare proprie politiche pubbliche.

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Caffè LungoLa transizione verso le energie rinnovabili ha guadagnato maggiore attenzione a Porto Rico dopo che l’isola è stata colpita dall’uragano Maria nel 2017. Essendo un’area soggetta a disastri, Porto Rico può sfruttare il post-disastro per promuovere la transizione energetica e costruire la sua resilienza. Con la transizione verso le energie rinnovabili, Porto Rico può contribuire a ridurre l’uso di vettori energetici fossili, mitigandone gli effetti sui cambiamenti climatici, responsabili del numero crescente e rafforzamento della magnitudine dei fenomeni naturali.

[Con questo articolo inizia una piccola serie de Il Caffè Geopolitico di articoli in lingua inglese a cura del Desk Nord America]

PUERTO RICO

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea whose inhabitants are U.S. Citizens since 1917, as it became a U.S. unincorporated territory since then. The political status of the island limits the policymaking abilities of the Governorate, and it is also true in the area of energy and environmental policy. Indeed, the energy policy dominance of the U.S. Federal government needs to be taken as the umbrella within which contextualize the renewable energy transition of Puerto Rico.


As Puerto Rico is located in the Caribbean Sea, north of the Lesser Antilles, is often invested by the trajectory of hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean. In 2017, Puerto Rico was stroke by Hurricane Maria who only four days before it made landfall on the island. The catastrophic event left the island without electricity and/or running water for weeks and in some areas for months. The power grid, managed by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), did not stand the Category 4/5 hurricane winds, showing how vulnerable the energy supply on the island was. The post-Hurricane Maria left the public opinion with one big question: Is it time for Puerto Rico to re-think its energy production?

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Fig. 1Puerto Rico after the hurricane Maria.

THE PAST

The renewable energy transition in Puerto Rico is a matter of social (in)justice, environmental (in)justice, and environmental racism. Puerto Rico’s environment has been exploited for over a century, and the threats posed against its inhabitants, nature, and wildlife are uncountable. Black and rural communities suffered the most from environmental injustice, and their health and well-being were often posed at risk by energy production practices that were neither responsible nor sustainable. Indeed, such exploitation resulted from the industrialization process which left former agricultural workers without a job, including populations once enslaved in the sugar cane production.

In response to an almost-exclusive coal-fired electricity production, in 2011, the former Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, proposed to build a pipeline to transport natural gas from the south to the north of Puerto Rico. The initiative, called the Green Way Project (Via Verde Project), had the intent of bringing natural gas to the areas of Arecibo, Cataño, and San Juan, from the southern city of Peñuelas, all the way up through the Cordillera Central. Several environmentalists and politicians, including former U.S. Representative for the Illinois 4th Congressional District, Luis Vicente Gutierrez, and the organization Casa Pueblo of Adjuntas, denounced how the construction and maintenance of the Green Way would’ve endangered the environment and consequently, the people living close to the pipeline path. Thus, PREPA withdrew the Green Way Project application from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in October 2012.

In 2020, almost half of Puerto Rico’s electricity was still deriving from petroleum-fired power plants and about 19% from coal; 29% comes from natural gas and only 2.5% from renewable energies. These numbers motivated signing into law the 2019’s Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act that requires PREPA to eliminate coal-derived energy by 2028 and obtain electricity from renewable resources in the measure of 40% in 2025, 60% by 2040, and 100% by 2050.

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Fig. 2 Protesters at Puerto Rico

THE PRESENT

Puerto Rico is far from reaching its energy policy goals as stated in the 2019’s Act. Experts have argued that the island’s path towards the energy transition was challenged by the occurrence of natural hazards deteriorating into disasters—such as Hurricane Maria—while others see disasters as the fuel for such transition.

While working on her research that investigates how procedural arrangements in emergency management are affected by differences in the governing institutions between U.S. states and U.S. territories—whose case studies are Florida and Puerto Rico—the author found that the ‘truth’ about the connection between disasters and renewable energy transition for the island lies in between. As the author’s research addresses the phases of emergency management separately, when investigating the recovery phase, she found out that where solar energy was involved, then the recovery was faster.

As mentioned above, among the opponents to the Green Way Project and pipeline, there was Casa Pueblo. Casa Pueblo is an environmental community-based organization located in Adjuntas, southwest of Puerto Rico, about 30 minutes away from Ponce. Committed to fighting for environmental and social justice, Casa Pueblo’s solar panels allowed people in the surrounding area to have an energy access point when Hurricane Maria destroyed the power grid of Puerto Rico in September of 2017.

Why is the case of Casa Pueblo’s solar energy important and worth mentioning? First, Casa Pueblo’s solar energy initiative has meant for the local community to have access to electricity not only for everyday needs but also for medical ones. When the hurricane hit, many people did not know where to refrigerate their insulin and at-home dialysis patients were not able to run their life-saving machines. Second, Casa Pueblo’s solar energy initiative is a demonstration of a) the need to mitigate climate change effects which are worsening the consequences of natural hazards, deteriorating into catastrophe, and b) how solar energy is a means for increasing disaster resilience (as, for example, solar panels can be disassembled and reassembled before and after the passage of a hurricane).

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Fig. 3Power lines are seen at the Costa Sur power plant in Penuelas, Puerto Rico on January 9, 2020, after a powerful earthquake hit the island.

THE FUTURE

As renewable energies are often seen as the future in the energy policies of countries worldwide, what is holding for Puerto Rico? As Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas shows, solar energy is not only good for mitigating the effects of climate change but also, for strengthening communities’ resilience to disasters. However, there are a few considerations that have to be made when exploring ways for the island’s renewable energy transition.

Puerto Rico is prone to several and different disasters, including earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Earthquakes can cause severe damages to ‘traditional’ power grids, as well as those for solar, hydro, and wind energy. Similarly, tsunamis and/or resulting floods can severely damage those infrastructures. Hurricanes can do the same, except if, as mentioned above, solar panels are disassembled before their arrival and wind turbines are built to be resistant to hurricane-force winds. Climate change, which is altering the rainfall quantity and periodical occurrence, can also affect the ability of solar panels to store solar energy as clouds may impede doing so in enough quantities to satisfy the energy demand of the island. On the other hand, too much rain can also compromise the storage capabilities of hydropower plants.

What can be the solution? On one hand, it is possible to assess the pros and cons of each renewable energy option to develop projects going towards the one that may be more sustainable given the local characteristics and weather forecasts. On the other hand, an optimal solution would be that of employing more than one kind of renewable energy, so they can ‘compensate’ one another.

The limitation to any kind of potential solutions is represented by—as mentioned in this article’s opening—the US energy dominance. Hence, Puerto Ricans pay much higher prices for electricity than their counterparts in the U.S. mainland. With strong PREPA’s investments in natural gas, the Agency seems to go in favor of an energy transition in Puerto Rico, but issues related to a lacking implementation of Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) provisions act to restructuring the debt of the island, keeps the price of energy in Puerto Rico high as well as profitable, something that makes the future of the renewable energy transition in danger.

Sara Belligoni

Photo by Caleb Oquendo is licensed under CC0

Sara Belligoni
Sara Belligoni

Sara Belligoni is a Ph. D. Candidate in Security Studies at the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs at the University of Central Florida. She investigates how vulnerable communities can better prepare for, respond to, and recover from crises and disasters. Sara adopts a multi-discipline approach that combines political science, public policy, and security studies. Prior to joining UCF, she received a Certificate in Global Affairs (2015) from the New York University, a Master’s Degree cum laude in International Relations (2015) and a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science for Cooperation and Development (2012) both from Universita’ degli Studi Roma Tre.

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