Puerto Rican civil society demands electricity as a fundamental right
The experts agreed on the need of a modern, public entity that can effectively rebuild and administer a clean, reliable, accessible and resilient electric grid.
Revisiting the event hosted by BUDPR on September 19th at
The George Washington University Law School in Washington, DC
Ramón Cruz, President of Sierra Club, gives the welcome remarks at the start of the discussion panel in The George Washington University Law School, in Washington, DC.
On September 19, 2022, BUDPR hosted a conversation with the goal of remembering the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in the Puerto Rican archipelago. We originally planned to discuss both what had been done so far, as well as opportunities for further enhancing Puerto Rico’s resilience to climate hazards. However, the destruction caused by Hurricane Fiona, one day shy of the fifth anniversary of Maria, demonstrated once again how far the island is still from being resilient to climate change. More misery, more near-total power and potable water outages, more flooding across Puerto Rico have made us rethink the goal of the conference into opening a space for debate on what needs to be done to ensure a just, sustainable, renewable, and fair transition towards a resilient and improved island.
As Ramón Cruz, president of Sierra Club, stated, “under the current climate change scenario, what we are experiencing today and have experienced five years ago is no longer an exception but the norm. This is demanding that we shift the current approach from an emergency response to a new reality, locating climate change solutions at the center.”
Hurricane María not only devastated the island and caused the longest power blackout in the US history, but also worsened the state of the power grid already weakened by poor maintenance, mismanagement, aging infrastructure, government corruption, and the failure of the Puerto Rican and US governments to rebuild the grid as a sustainable, resilient, and green one. Instead of complying with mandates to develop and increase renewable energy in the recent Puerto Rican energy public policy law as well as in Puerto Rico’s Integrated Resource Plan , PREPA and LUMA insist on increasing methane gas use and excluding any significant, short-term development of renewable energy.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico continues to suffer from blackouts after the privatization of the energy grid by LUMA, a deal that came with a nearly one billion dollar debt that Puerto Ricans were forced into just so LUMA could have the operating capital to operate. To put it simply, “the Government has wasted five years” as asserted by Ingrid Vila, president of CAMBIO.
The proof is clearly visible after Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane, that impacted the island between September 17-19. Exactly five years after María, Hurricane Fiona brought back the recurring nightmare of blackouts, flooding, misery, all indicators of the exacerbated vulnerabilities existing in Puerto Rico. On September 19, over a million Puerto Ricans were left out without power. Puerto Rico lived once again a state of emergency that has further exacerbated the vulnerability of its citizens.
There is a clear demand for an immediate transition towards a renewable, trusted, localized and equitable solar-based energy grid.
Where do we go from here? What should the Puerto Rico and US governments prioritize to successfully change the trajectory of inefficiency, misery, and vulnerability into one of success and justice?
The experts at the conversation hosted by BUDPR agreed on the inefficiency and inequitable nature of the current reconstruction path. Instead of a centralized administrative response model that is at odds with what is needed to address the climate crisis and to create resilience among Puerto Ricans, the transition should be centered around the wellbeing, desires, and needs of Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans are pushing for the implementation of rooftop solar panels and a distributed energy system, as a climate-resilient solution to the current power infrastructure’s weaknesses.
The discussion panel was hosted by Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR) in a full GW Law Faculty Conference Center.
As emphasized by Dr Adi Martínez-Román of the Universidad de Puerto Rico’s Resiliency Law Center: “Electricity is a fundamental right, on which lives depend on”. Therefore, PREPA needs to be adequately funded, restored, and managed as an efficient and modern public entity so it can once again provide vital electricity for Puerto Ricans. It is time to shift the unjust and socially detached narrative and come back to a framework in which projects are approved and driven by the voices and innovation of Puerto Rican renewable energy experts and their advocates, such as Queremos Sol. It is time to redistribute power and “recognize that the story of electricity is a story of power”, as stated by Stephen Walls from John Hopkins University. President Biden’s Justice40 framework, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provide an opportunity and funding to change the catastrophic trajectory that Puerto Rico is mired in, and demand a grid that prioritizes the needs of Puerto Ricans.
First, there should be a redirection in funding; it must be directed where it is needed. FEMA has awarded $9.4 billion for grid reconstruction in Puerto Rico and this historic sum must be invested in the transformation of the island’s electrical system. However, instead of using it for local, renewable and fair solutions, the government keeps being unaligned to their discourse. The federal government should stop thinking solely on injecting money but directing it where it will be used in benefit of its citizens and land, with local NGOs and communities having control over the decisions of how and where to invest the money.
Secondly, the current crisis is a crisis of governance. One that could be solved by enlarging local participation in decision making. A shift that will ensure local knowledge, preferences and needs are prioritized in the process. It is, therefore, a problem of absent accountability and transparency within LUMA’s processes, the imposition of PROMESA and the lack of political power and sovereignty to take into account our needs and being unable to make our own decisions. A crisis that would be addressed through a system that encourages and facilitates wider public participation and local capacity building through shared governance and transparency.
Third, and most important, it is a problem of the current privatization of energy transmission and distribution. As mentioned by Ingrid Vila, president of CAMBIO, and many others, LUMA must go! It is time to develop a new energy vision that embraces a prosperous, just, democratic, sustainable and happy Puerto Rico. It is time to ensure the interests of Puerto Ricans are met in harmony with the existing technological opportunities within our economic, social and environmental realities.
Above all, the current situation in the island is the result of interconnected social, economic, political, and climatic crises. These will not be solved through isolated and detached strategies, but through concerted and inclusive collective action among civil society, climate and renewable energy experts, and policymakers. The creation of a resilient energy grid must be the result of a multidisciplinary and inclusive effort. It requires an “all hands on deck” that demands the collaboration of all sorts of skills.
This becomes even more urgent given that as a society, “we do not need to adapt to the impacts of today, but to the impacts of tomorrow”, as stated by Juan Declet-Barreto from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Hurricane Maria was a wake-up call for a structural transformation of the Puerto Rican energy grid, and its lessons were not heeded. Will the new wave of misery brought by Hurricane Fiona finally push the US and Puerto Rico governments to prioritize the needs of Puerto Ricans and develop a reliable, sustainable, just, and resilient distributed electric grid system? The clock is ticking, and the People of Puerto Rico are losing patience, justifiably. Will we need another 2019 Summer? Just the time will tell.
Miren Gil-Vernet Pagonabarraga
BUDPR Climate Change Researcher
Climate and international development researcher who focuses on urban resilience as an area to promote long-term sustainable development, particularly in less developed regions such as the Caribbean basin. She graduated from King’s College London with a BA in International Development and recently graduated from the MA in Climate and Society at Columbia University.