Energy Secretary Hopes $450 Million for Solar Will Rebuild Trust in Puerto Rico Power Grid

Aug 3, 2023
3:47 PM

U.S. Energy Sec. Jennifer Granholm at a roundtable discussion on virtual power plants, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, August 2, 2023. (Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco/Latino Rebels)

SAN JUAN — On Monday, U.S. Energy Sec. Jennifer Granholm announced a $453.3 million commitment to finance rooftop solar panels and battery systems for Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable communities.

Up to 40,000 homes could soon be outfitted with photovoltaic systems, which would go a long way towards ensuring energy security on an archipelago that for years has suffered from an unstable electrical grid and regular blackouts.

“We want progress. We’re impatient… The grid has been under-invested in for decades, so I know that we have moved the ball, but it’s not fast enough and nobody’s satisfied,” Granholm told Latino Rebels at an event in San Juan on Wednesday.

The energy secretary traveled to Puerto Rico on Monday for a three-day tour of the island, during which she met with Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón, plus senior leadership across the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and local government bodies.

Funding for the new initiative comes from the $1 billion Puerto Rico Energy Resilience Fund (PR-ERF) approved by Congress last December. It’s meant to provide reliable and affordable energy to the archipelago’s residents most in need, some of whom have experienced unstable electricity multiple times a week or even in a single day.

More than 40 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line yet pay about four cents more than what Americans pay for electricity.

The $453.3 million in funding will target low-income and medically vulnerable households that rely on plug-in medical equipment, as well as those who live in “last-mile” communities, hard-to-reach areas that are the last to see power restored following a blackout. Some such communities spent up to a year without electricity after Hurricane María in 2017.

The electrical grid was already badly in need of repair before María swept through and nearly destroyed it entirely. President Joe Biden put Granholm in charge of a multi-agency push to renovate Puerto Rico’s energy system after visiting the archipelago in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona last September, which caused an island-wide blackout.

Repairing and rebuilding the electrical grid will take time, Granholm stated.

In the meantime, Puerto Ricans experience a surreal reality of not knowing if they will have power when they get home until they turn on a light switch. Puerto Rico experienced 570 times the North American utility standard for rolling blackouts in 2022, Granholm told Latino Rebels.

“That should be seared into our souls because that is unacceptable, and that is what we are trying to fix,” she told federal and local officials, community members, and industry leaders at the Monday meeting where she announced the new initiative.

Over the last few weeks, thousands of Puerto Ricans experienced a series of blackouts caused by a lack of energy generation and exacerbated by a record-setting heat wave, according to Genera PR, the private company that assumed control of energy plant operation from the state agency on July 1. At press time, more than 1.3  percent of Puerto Ricans still did not have electricity, according to LUMA Energy, the private company that operates the distribution and transmission of energy in Puerto Rico.

“I’m not satisfied. I don’t think they’re satisfied, but we want them to be successful,” Granholm told Latino Rebels when asked about her views on Genera PR and LUMA Energy.

The PR-ERF includes a two-year study meant to find the best path for achieving a completely green energy grid by 2050, as mandated by a Puerto Rican law established in 2019. The law has intermittent targets of 40 percent renewable by 2025 and 60 percent by 2040.

But efforts toward reaching those goals have floundered so far. Only about three or four percent of the archipelago’s energy consistently comes from renewables, mostly solar, and many Puerto Ricans believe the 2025 target is now unattainable.

“I think it’s gonna be hard, to be honest, but I think there is a path. This is why we’re so focused on accelerating, because it won’t happen at the current pace,” Granholm said.

There are currently 133 transmission and distribution projects being built to improve the energy grid, with over $2.5 billion in federal funding, according to remarks made by Pierluisi at an event in San Juan on Monday, where he was joined by Sec. Granholm, Rep. González Colón and local leaders. He also stated that an attempt to get 11 new generation units, albeit powered by natural gas. 

A large part of the program’s structure was impacted by a community outreach campaign led by Granholm, who has visited Puerto Rico five times in the last year. The visits garnered suggestions about funding repairs, working with community networks, and ensuring information about the program is easily accessible.

The program includes a $3.5 million “Solar Ambassador” program meant to fund up to 20 community organizations to help households enroll in the program by the spring of 2024. A select few organizations will be awarded $15,000 in seed funding. The idea for the seed funding came from community organizations telling the PR-ERF that there was very little investment in helping them expand after they have helped, said Eric Britton, project manager at the Department of Energy.

“(You) don’t have to be an expert in solar energy but you do need to be an expert in your communities,” Britton said to a room full of community leaders and federal and local officials.

The ambassador program stands in stark contrast to a first-come, first-served state-level program launched in March that quickly ran out of spots in less than an hour.

Many Puerto Ricans have a deeply entrenched mistrust of the electrical grid and the federal government after serious missteps in the wake of Hurricane María and its enduring aftermath. Billions of dollars of hurricane recovery funding have not been deployed, and some houses still donned the FEMA-provided blue tarps when Fiona struck five years later.

Granholm says she hopes this nearly half a billion in funding is the start of regaining Puerto Ricans’ trust in the electrical grid and the federal government.

“This is why we’re going to all these communities and really speaking to community leaders because they’re the ones who have the trust in Puerto Rico —and therefore this should be built from the bottom up— and that’s what we’re doing,” she said. “We hope that we’ll be able to gain people’s trust, but the proof will be in the pudding.”

Community organizations across Puerto Rico often bemoan the fact that government agencies create their own programs instead of working with community organizations through programs that have already been established.

“We come with the neighbors. You might doubt me… but you’ll trust in Doña Carmen,” Jorge Gaskins, one of the founding members of Barrio Eléctrico, told Latino Rebels.

While only servicing a small number of households in Isabela, he credited Barrio Eléctrico’s community-focused approach for the trust the group has cultivated with different communities.

“We want to see distributed solar across the island, and the best way to do that is through organizations that people trust. And I personally love the nonprofits because we know that they are in it for the people,” Granholm said. 

The application period for funding and the ambassador program will be open until September 18 and 25, respectively, with the funding opportunity divided into at least two rounds. The second round will launch at some point in the future, focused on multi-family buildings.


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