solar panels 2018.jpg

UNIFIL/Pasqual Gorriz Photo Voltaic Panels equipped with built-in tracking technology, enabling the panels to follow the path of the sun, thereby increasing their efficiency, at UNIFIL Headquarters in Naqoura, Lebanon.

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Yamil Colón, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Notre Dame

Hurricane Maria tore apart the green mantle of foliage covering Puerto Rico, leaving destruction in its wake. It laid bare the island’s old and outdated infrastructure, upon which four million people depend. The infrastructure’s state of disrepair, compounded by the logistical blunders of federal and local authorities, resulted in a humanitarian crisis, which was characterized by a failure to provide critical aid and restore power. This directly caused many of the thousands of deaths that have been attributed to Hurricane Maria.

The lack of power severely affected those in need of respirators and dialysis machines. Blocked roads prevented patients from seeking medical help and emergency vehicles from reaching their destination. Mental health and public health issues followed. Key among these was the lack of power and the length of the blackout, which was the longest and largest in US history. A number of factors contributed, including the fact that the power plants and grids were in severe need of repair and upgrading at the time of the disaster. The topography of Puerto Rico is also unforgiving; roads and bridges in mountainous regions were destroyed or covered by landslides and fallen trees, which slowed down repairs.

Pie charts illustrating energy consumption by sector and energy sources as of 2015

It was in the mountainous region of Adjuntas however, where a path to Puerto Rico’s future perhaps began. Casa Pueblo served as an example of what the island’s energy future should look like, especially after hurricanes. Casa Pueblo operates a radio station, a movie theatre and a community centre using solar power. In the days and months of darkness that followed Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo was an energy oasis for those in need.

Members of the surrounding community were able to visit Casa Pueblo and plug in their respirators, store their perishable food items in refrigerators and charge their cell phones. Seeing the dire necessity, Casa Pueblo also installed solar panels for some of the most vulnerable members of the community. Casa Pueblo’s energy insurrection, as they call it, includes the use of solar power in: a radio transmitter; a radio station; a cinema; 25 homes; 54 refrigerators; a classroom; a barber shop; minimarkets; two restaurants; two hardware stores and other small businesses; 10 homes with a solar backup energy system; 14,000 solar lamps; five permanent systems for dialysis machines … and more.

While authorities in Puerto Rico were struggling to restore power and navigate through remote areas, destroyed roads and bureaucratic tape, Casa Pueblo was providing energy to its surrounding community. Communities in Puerto Rico spent more than a year in darkness, but Casa Pueblo turned its lights back on immediately after the hurricane. On a wider level, Casa Pueblo demonstrated that, even after a natural disaster, renewable and sustainable energy guarantees communication, innovation, economic activation, food security, education, health services and entertainment.

Hurricane Maria brought destruction to Puerto Rico, but also opportunity. Efforts to restore electricity on the island should include renewable and sustainable sources of energy, with a view to end the use of fossil fuels. As Casa Pueblo has shown, solar energy has minimal downtime after a natural disaster. It provides decentralized energy generation at the point of consumption, eliminating the hazards and difficulties associated with the failure of a main grid. Furthermore, in addition to the ethical failings of fossil fuels in light of climate change, it makes no economic or financial sense to continue the use of fossil fuels on Puerto Rico.

All fuels that are supported by the current infrastructure need to be imported. This makes them subject to cabotage laws such as the Jones Act, which adds a significant surplus to the cost. In fact, 50% of energy costs on Puerto Rico are strictly to pay for fuel. Between 2000 and 2009, $22 billion left the local economy to pay for fuel. Puerto Rico should seize the opportunity to break, once and for all, the needless and obstinate dependence on fossil fuels which was responsible for thousands of deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Given these facts, it is flabbergasting that the financial control board in charge of Puerto Rico’s budget is not seriously considering renewable and sustainable energy options. Instead, it is pushing for the widespread consumption of natural gas. Ignoring the issues of a non-democratically appointed control board making these decisions for Puerto Ricans, a massive investment in natural gas is simply not a sustainable solution for the island. It would require significant changes to infrastructure and the addition of multiple pipelines, which would not only unnecessarily expose Puerto Rico’s natural resources to known dangers and complications associated with pipelines, but would also continue and expand the poisonous and irresponsible addiction to fossil fuels.

Notably, the changes needed to accommodate natural gas would not transform the current infrastructure used to deliver energy to consumers. In other words, despite massive investment, Puerto Rico would be just as vulnerable to another blackout of the same magnitude as in Maria’s aftermath. Puerto Rico would also be just as vulnerable to the loss of life associated with such a blackout. Armed with this knowledge, it is negligent to continue to consider fossil fuels as viable options for Puerto Rico moving forward. The island’s energy future must be anchored by renewable and sustainable sources, not fossil fuels.