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Puerto Rico: State of Chaos

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Oct 26, 2017 10:17:32 AM

Five weeks after Hurricane Maria, 70% of Puerto Rico remains without power. While the recent announcement regarding the rebuilding of the Puerto Rican grid by a small company out of Whitefish, Montana may bring some short-term relief to residents, the news certainly raises many long-term questions around ongoing grid resiliency and reliability. And an even bigger question looms—who will pay?

Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure was precarious at best.  The entity in charge of the commonwealth’s electricity delivery, the Puerto Rico Public Power Authority (PREPA), had been suffocating under a mountain of crippling debt (in the range of $10 billion.) 

PREPA, which filed for bankruptcy in July, had no recourse to recoup that debt from rate payers (most Puerto Ricans are already overextended due to inordinately high energy bills—on average, Puerto Ricans earn less than half of the median American income and spend twice as much on monthly energy bills), and the debt-plagued Puerto Rican government is certainly not in a position to bail out the utility.

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In the wake of Maria, some are calling for a complete system overhaul, in which the Puerto Rican government replaces PREPA with a privately capitalized power company, tasked with developing a comprehensive renewable energy system that includes decentralized microgrids with solar, storage, and intelligent technology to optimize energy production and distribution. 

Proponents of this strategy argue that this alternate type of system would be cheaper and quicker to build, and that it would minimize operating costs, ensure infrastructure resiliency, and eliminate the corruption that currently plagues the Puerto Rican system in favor of a more equitable solution.

Unfortunately, that outcome became much less likely when, earlier this week, a $300 million contract was awarded to Whitefish Energy Holdings, an obscure company based in Whitefish, Montana (which happens to be the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke) to rebuild the same old, same old centralized power grid, with 2,500 miles of transmission lines that are susceptible to the next major superstorm that slams Puerto Rico.

Given the outrageous costs that Whitefish Energy Holdings is reportedly charging for the project, one can’t help but wonder—how can Puerto Rico afford this rebuilding project?  With not one penny of extra cash to burn, it’s projected that the commonwealth could run out of money as soon as next month.

Which means that American tax payers will presumably end up footing the bill for rebuilding Puerto Rico’s grid infrastructure.  I’m okay with that, given that we all enjoy the public services of our great nation, but if U.S. citizens are paying for a new grid, shouldn’t we have a say in how it is built?

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz seems to feel the same way—earlier this week, she publicly criticized the “alarming” Whitefish contract, calling for more transparency and claiming that “it should be voided right away.”  In response, Whitefish threatened to withdraw its services.

Fortunately, Tesla is offering a counterbalance to the chaos—the company stepped in to restore power to the Hospital del Niño, a children's hospital in San Juan (apparently, the “first of many solar + storage projects going live” in Puerto Rico).  Tesla has also been shipping Powerwall batteries to Puerto Rican residents to power their homes, and CEO Elon Musk has donated $250,000 of his own money for relief efforts.

Given that the technology—and the willingness—exists to rebuild Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure resiliently and sustainably with cost-effective and clean renewables, I can’t help but wonder: will power plays and politics trump practicality in Puerto Rico?

In a recent article written for Green Builder Media by Governor Martin O’Malley (which I highly recommend reading), O’Malley opines:

Resiliency means more than just picking yourself and your neighbor up off of the mat. It means adapting and changing in light of new realities. We rebuilt our cities differently -- stronger, better, more resilient -- after the great fires that destroyed Chicago and Baltimore in the early 1900's. We learned to farm and irrigate our land differently after the dust bowls that devastated America's heartland in the late twenties.

Today, we must learn from the mega-hurricane disasters brought about by our global warming.

This means changing the way we feed our people, fuel our economies, and heal our planet as we face the realities of climate change. It means rebuilding an electric grid in Puerto Rico that will be, at once, more renewable and more resilient…

Now is the opportunity to restructure.  Now is the time to realign profit motives to renewables and resiliency. Now is the time to rebuild Puerto Rico's electric grid with a human purpose.

Well said, Governor.

In recent discussions with friends who are resiliency experts, many questions have been posed.  Why isn’t resiliency front and center in the rebuilding discussion?  Where does Governor Ricardo Rosselló stand, and why hasn’t he stepped up with a plan for resilient rebuilding? 

Understandably, it’s nearly impossible to look into the future when you’re trying to help your constituents get enough food and water to get through a single day, but perhaps it is time to rise above the disarray and set a higher standard.

If you’d like to take part in developing an actionable plan for developing smart, clean, efficient, and resilient solutions, please join Green Builder Media and the City of Orlando at our upcoming Sustainability Symposium: Champions of Change on January 8, 2018 at the University of Central Florida campus in Orlando, Florida.  The event will directly and honestly confront the reality of climate change—the challenge of our generation, and the opportunity of a lifetime.

Click here for more information about the Sustainability Symposium 2018: Champions of Change.  Space is limited, to be sure to reserve your seat today! 

How do you think Puerto Rico can rebuild resiliently and sustainably? Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com.

Want to read more?  Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.  For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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