At a time when Puerto Rico was experiencing its worst blackout in months, which left nearly all of the island’s 1.5 million customers without power for days, the town of Adjuntas was an oasis.
On a Thursday morning in early April, with school closed, kids took seats in an air-conditioned cinema in a community center, a pizzeria prepared its kitchen for lunch, and a local barbershop welcomed customers looking for a quick trim.
The contrast explains why the Adjuntas community, with a population of about 18,000 in the densely forested mountains of central Puerto Rico, has become a showcase of how solar energy is tackling one of the island’s most vexing problems — a power grid that struggled to recover after Hurricane Maria virtually destroyed it. in 2017.
Thanks to the work of Casa Pueblo, a conservation nonprofit, about 400 homes and businesses in Adjuntas have solar power, including more than a dozen small-grid solar-powered stores. With backup batteries, systems can operate even in the event of a power outage, keeping businesses open and turning the organization’s headquarters into a refuge for people using medical devices that need to run.
“When you have energy security, you take the burden off the staff as well as the families who come to work,” said Angel Irisari Feliciano, owner of Lucy’s Pizza, which has been operating during the blackout. “It has been our satisfaction to continue providing service to our employees without interruption or having to reduce our working hours.”
But the situation in Adjuntas also highlights how far the rest of Puerto Rico has to go in renewable energy, despite all the obvious reasons for that: the island’s long, sunny days; its need to import all other fuels, which makes electricity generation expensive; And of course the constantly disrupted electricity network.
Government data shows that although the number of solar installations has risen in recent years, solar power accounts for only 2.5 percent of Puerto Rico’s total energy production. The rest comes from plants that run on natural gas, coal, imported petroleum, and another sliver of wind energy.
Many Puerto Ricans can’t spend the $27,000 that a typical solar power system would cost, and the government — which emerged from unprecedented bankruptcy in March — began setting concrete renewable energy goals only in 2019. Solar panels in their homes have been deterred by the financial chaos in Puerto Rico, particularly the proposal to charge solar customers to help support public utilities.
Casa Pueblo installations are paid for with money from foundations, both in Puerto Rico and abroad, and from sales of coffee grown in Adjuntas. Since Hurricane Maria, the organization has expanded its efforts to adopt solar energy to include communities in other parts of the island.
“We need public policy to create a business model focused on helping you generate your own power, not just the one that provides power,” said Arturo Masol Dia, Associate Director of Casa Pueblo. People are tired of constant power outages and damage to their devices.
After the recent power outage, which began on April 6 after a fire broke out at a power plant in the southwestern town of Guayanila, electricity has not been fully restored for four days. The island-wide shutdown has caused a series of problems: Water has also been shut down for many, hospitals have had to turn to standby generators, and schools and businesses have closed.
The power outage sparked protests and calls for the government cancel her contract With Luma Energy, the private energy company that took over the facility last June, promises to restore the grid. Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia rejected the idea. But the constant power outages, along with monthly electricity bills that rose 46 percent in the past year, have added to frustration with the facility, which is operated by a Canadian-American company under a 15-year contract signed last year.
“While some politicians choose to ignore the state of the power grid that Loma inherited and blame without facts, we will continue to focus on Puerto Rico’s energy future,” Loma said in a statement to the New York Times.
Puerto Rico has ambitions to do more with renewable energy. In 2019, the government approved a file Clean Energy Act This requires that 100 percent of the island’s electricity comes from renewable sources by 2050 and includes promises to use federal funds to build renewable energy projects that reach low-income communities.
Puerto Rico’s Financial Supervisory Board Approved 18 renewable energy projects in March with the goal of increasing clean energy production to 23 percent of the island’s total production by the end of 2024. In February, the US Department of Energy began a two-year study of clean energy options in Puerto Rico. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, $12 billion To renew the energy industry on the island.
Even when he proposed such an ambitious target for renewable energy, the oversight board raised the possibility Charging consumers Those who have solar panels in their homes make them pay a fee for the electricity they consume, even if that energy is generated from their own panels.
Under the proposal, introduced as a way to help pay off $9 billion in debt owed by Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, new customers were to pay a fee for each kilowatt of solar energy they generated. Because the proposal also included a plan to increase conventional energy rates, the governor rescinded it in March. But solar advocates say they are concerned that as negotiations continue for a new agreement, the fee – which some refer to as a solar tax – could be revived.
“We need to find a way to deal with debt,” said Francisco Berrios Portela, director of the Energy Policy Program at Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Trade. “But it can’t be by adding a tax on the generation produced by the kind of systems we encourage.”
Uncertainty about whether they will have to pay more for the solar system at home or at work has dissuaded consumers like Maria Lizardi Cordova, an accountant who lives in San Juan. Ms. Lizardi Cordova can see a neighbor’s solar panels from her bedroom window and knows several other people in the neighborhood who have decided to invest in solar energy, but she thinks it’s still too early to make the transition herself.
“This is not the time, and it’s all about the uncertainty about any additional solar costs and what my expenses will be,” said Ms Lizardi Cordova. “The situation becomes more complicated with debt.”
For Puerto Ricans with medical needs, such as cooling for insulin or power for dialysis machines, power outages can be tricky—and the benefits of a solar-powered backup system are enormous.
In Adjuntas, Casa Pueblo runs a private project that provides solar panels to people with medical needs, such as Juan Molina Reyes, a farmer who grows bananas, coffee, and oranges.
Luis, 75-year-old father of Molina Reyes, had a stroke in August and needs help breathing. He says he went through seven gas generators in an effort to keep his father’s oxygen concentrator running when the electricity grid went down.
That changed in February, when the family of Mr. Molina Reyes obtained the solar panels after seeking help from the charity. He said he felt lucky to have them.
“It was infuriating to know that if at any moment the system failed me, my father would die,” said Mr. Molina Reyes. “It was an uphill battle.”
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