In Search of Puerto Rico’s Solar Energy Future

Feb 1, 2023
6:19 PM

Solar panels at the Casa Pueblo campus in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. (José Almodóvar/Facebook)

SAN JUAN — If you step outside in Puerto Rico, the first thing you’re likely to feel is the intense heat of the sun bearing down on you.

With the sun constantly shining across the archipelago, shifting toward solar energy seems like the obvious choice. But there has been barely any effort to switch to this alternative energy source in place of fossil fuels.

As established by the landmark Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act (Act 17) in 2019, 40 percent of Puerto Rico’s energy is supposed to come from renewables by the year 2025, 60 percent by 2040, and a full 100 percent by 2050. The law also envisions a phase-out of coal-fired energy generation by 2028 and a 30 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2040.

By all accounts, though, these goals will not be reached unless there is a radical change of direction in the archipelago’s energy infrastructure.

“To say that in three years there will be 40 percent of energy production in a stable, commercial manner and in compliance with all the requirements in service, I really don’t see it viable,” said Josué Colón Ortiz, executive director of the Puerto Rican Energy Power Authority (PREPA), in a hearing with the Strategic Projects and Energy Commission Senate Committee in March 2022.

At the time, Colón Ortiz estimated that between three and five percent of Puerto Rico’s energy came from renewable sources. At a meeting of the Association of Mechanical Contractors in January, Francisco Berríos Portela, deputy chief of staff for energy affairs, said current estimates were “close to seven percent“—still less than four times the proposed goal that Puerto Rico hopes to hit in less than three years.

Meanwhile, about 44 percent of the island’s electricity comes from natural gas-fired power plants, 37 percent from petroleum, and 17 percent from coal. These figures will likely stay the same for the foreseeable future, given that PREPA recently signed a contract with Novum Energy Trading for diesel fuel at six times the previous amount.

The government of Puerto Rico is also in the process of privatizing electrical generation. Genera PR, a consortium of NFR Energía, Peak Energy, and Black & Veatch, was the company chosen to handle the privatization.

LUMA Energy, the private company in charge of distribution, maintenance, and repair of the archipelago’s grid, has not started any renewable projects itself, although it has “connected more than 36,500 solar customers, adding over 166 megawatts of renewable electricity to the grid,” according to a company representative. While the company has been given several FEMA grants to rebuild and, in some places, improve the grid, the great majority of its renewable energy projects focus on individual rooftop solar energy systems.

Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy has become a critical step in mitigating the worsening effects of climate change and advancing the cause of equitable climate justice. Renewable energy is particularly imperative in this regard because it can also allow economies to not have to rely on outside sources for their energy needs, such as shipping in fossil fuels.

Even while renewable energy production remains at such a low level in Puerto Rico, there have been some strides towards producing green energy throughout the archipelago, particularly by private individuals and community organizations that have installed rooftop solar at cost to themselves after going months without power following hurricanes Irma and María in 2017 and Hurricane Fiona in 2022.

Hurricane María, a Category 4 hurricane, radically changed Puerto Rico and showed many people how truly fragile the already-failing electrical grid was. Five years after the devastating hurricane tore through, the electrical grid has yet to recover, and the recurring blackouts have gotten worse. During Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane that flooded Puerto Rico last September, the population of 3.3 million was plunged into darkness due to an island-wide blackout. Some lost power for mere days; others, in the southwest especially, for weeks.

Let the Sun Shine

While there have been some attempts to shift toward multiple types of renewables, experts agree that solar is the best renewable option for Puerto Rico. The archipelago could produce over four times the energy it needs from rooftop solar alone, according to preliminary results of a two-year study —known as PR100— currently being conducted by six national laboratories.

Led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), researchers delivered its one-year progress update on January 23, 2022. Meant to provide a comprehensive analysis of “stakeholder-driven pathways to Puerto Rico’s energy future,” the study is set to be completed by December 2023.

“Our intention was to have a breadth of people represented,” Robin Burton, an NREL researcher who worked on the study, told Latino Rebels, emphasizing that “there’s a ways to go” before Puerto Rico can reach 40 percent renewables.

The PR100 team presented three feasible scenarios for reaching the 100 percent renewable goal by 2050, ranging from a centralized approach where most energy is generated through solar and wind turbine forms to a decentralized approach where distributed solar panels are added to all suitable roofs. All three scenarios necessitate a significant increase in the number of rooftop solar panels.

Many Puerto Ricans have fought against industrial renewable energy projects on agricultural land. Experts worry about how such projects will affect the agricultural land where these farms are set up, given that the 2016 Puerto Rico Land Use Plan requires 636,000 acres to be reserved for agricultural production, though currently less than 500,000 acres are reserved for that purpose.

Addressing this concern, the study found that Puerto Rico could not meet its goal if agricultural land were excluded. Hence, the study stressed using other areas, such as suitable rooftops, airports, brownfields, and other industrial areas.

“The people of Puerto Rico —those who have the resources to do so— are clearly voting with their feet to move towards rooftop solar. But unfortunately, the central government has been dragging its feet,” said Cathy Kunkel, energy program manager at Cambio PR, a nonprofit advocacy group pushing for sustainable policies in Puerto Rico.

LUMA Energy, a consortium of ATCO and Quanta Services, has connected thousands of privately owned energy systems to the electrical grid since they took over in the summer of 2021. Thousands more are still waiting to be installed and approved, but the process is slow going.

While natural gas is often touted as an alternative to coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel, therefore “dirty” and contributes significantly to global warming. And while Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he was “aligned” with the PR100 study during a webinar where its first-year update was first presented, there has been a significant push for natural gas inside Puerto Rico’s government energy projects.

PREPA, for its part, has recently proposed converting four oil-burning plants to gas, which would add 237 megawatts of gas-powered energy. PREPA has also proposed building a new gas-fired power plant in San Juan, which would add 400 megawatts of capacity.

Still, PREPA is largely behind schedule on all of the projects it’s involved in, including its debt restructuring plan, which has been delayed twice already after a third round of debt negotiations was started earlier this year.

The recent announcement that Puerto Rico will privatize its electrical generation has stirred worries that the renewable energy goal will be further delayed in favor of natural gas. NFR Energía, one of the companies that make up Genera PR, is affiliated with New Fortress Energy, which supplies natural gas to Puerto Rico.

At the same meeting where he said he thought the 40 percent target was not viable, Colón Ortiz, PREPA’s executive director, suggested the government move its target goal further into the future and that only a quarter of all energy will be renewable by 2025. 

Community Solar

“They (the Puerto Rico government) generate some expectations they don’t have the intention of meeting. And that’s like an act of treason because the country wants to move towards renewable sources,” Arturo Massol, executive director of Casa Pueblo, told Latino Rebels.

Casa Pueblo is an environmental watchdog organization that has been at the cutting edge of renewable energy development on the archipelago. Before Hurricane María hit, the group was powering its campus with 100 percent solar energy. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the campus served as an “energy oasis” for locals who needed to charge their electronic or medical devices.

Seeing how they were cut off from the rest of Puerto Rico for weeks, Casa Pueblo resolved to power parts of the local community so that, if another hurricane came, they could get by without outside help. Partnered with the Honnold Foundation, Casa Pueblo has outfitted 25 businesses and restaurants around the town square so they can serve as their own “energy oases.” After Hurricane Fiona swept through last September, they were “fine,” according to Massol.

“There’s a mandate, yet they still have their head set on natural gas and other fossil fuels instead of increasing the penetration of solar energy or other renewable sources in Puerto Rico,” Massol said. “It’s been the job of people, of communities, and others to push the change from below.”

During the webinar presenting the first-year update of the PR100 study, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said she wanted to see more local community organizations involved in the transition to clean energy, specifically pointing to Casa Pueblo.

While Casa Pueblo was among the first community groups to push for renewable energy, there are currently more than a dozen similar groups promoting similar projects in their own municipalities. Projects like Cooperativa Hidroelectrica de la Montaña and Por los Nuestros have started outfitting certain key pieces of infrastructure in their communities with solar panels, so that they can get off the electrical grid and be resilient in response to extreme weather events.

Cooperativa Hidroelectrica de la Montaña —which is also trying to get the government to hand over PREPA’s old hydroelectric plants— has been slowly building a solar microgrid between Adjuntas, Jayuya, Lares, and Utuado. So far, the project has received the approval of the mayors of all four municipalities, and the group is waiting for a response from the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, which is charged with regulating and enforcing the energy public policy of the Puerto Rico government.

Maribel Hernández, assistant project manager for Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña, explained that hydroelectric power can make up for the days when adverse weather conditions limit sunlight. She specifically pointed to the days after Hurricane Fiona, when the amount of sunlight in the area was not enough to recharge solar batteries.

“We want to make a successful model so people will copy our model,” Delgado Hernández told Latino Rebels. “We need to be successful so people know that it can be done.”

Long Road to 100 Percent Renewable

As Puerto Rico moves toward its stated goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, there are still gigantic leaps that need to be taken if it plans to reach that target date, though it is becoming increasingly unlikely that such monumental steps will be taken.

As the people of Puerto Rico clamor for climate justice, it is also becoming clearer that they will be the ones who will have to secure such justice for and by themselves, as both the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments drag their feet in approving funding for renewable energy.

Nevertheless, President Joe Biden recently asked Congress to earmark $3 billion for the Department of Energy to finance rooftop solar and storage systems for the archipelago’s low-income communities. In addition, his administration has proposed an extra $35 million for initiatives to provide technical assistance to local agencies and communities.

Experts hail this as the first of many steps in the right direction.

This story was published with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL