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Puerto Rico’s broken power grid could become ‘big experience’ for Biden

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“The network needs a complete replacement”

PREPA, which regularly postpones network maintenance due to financial shortfalls, will have an important voice in how incoming FEMA funds are spent, as it must propose projects to the agency and its regulator for approval. The utility is under pressure from the Queremos Sol coalition and other organizations to focus more on renewable energy rather than rebuilding existing or developing oil infrastructure.

The system is in “serious degradation” due to years of poor maintenance and further destabilized by the 2020 earthquake, said Luis Martinez, Southeast energy director for the climate and clean energy program of the. Natural Resources Defense Council.

“I think the grid is in need of a complete replacement,” he said, adding that it was not designed to withstand the stronger hurricanes that climate change will increasingly cause in the Atlantic. . “Only the setup with production from the south being sent to the San Juan area, northeast, through the central mountain range… makes repair and maintenance very difficult and expensive. “

Oil and diesel power plants still provided half of the island’s electricity in 2020, while imported natural gas saw its share reach 29% and coal generated 19%. Hydropower and other renewables provided only 2.5 percent.

Under Puerto Rico’s Energy Public Policy Act 2019 (17-2019), PREPA is required to obtain 40% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025, 60% of by 2040 and 100% by 2050. The law also obliges it to phase out coal. -fire production by 2028.

Those numbers are roughly in line with Biden’s goal for the country and set a pace that climate advocates say should prevent increased reliance on fossil fuels on the island.

“I think Puerto Rico has an opportunity to move from an oil-based system, which is very archaic in terms of power generation, to a state-of-the-art mostly distributed system based on renewable energy, which can then be a model. for other states, ”Martinez said. He advised against taking “this intermediate step that many people seem to advocate, which is to go to imported liquefied gas, which is even more expensive”.

But González-Colón has dismissed these green ambitions as unachievable in the immediate future, saying the island needs to take an ‘all-up’ approach while the grid is being rebuilt to enable more renewables.

“We need to use LNG as a way to cut expenses and stabilize the system while investing in renewables,” she said.

For LUMA, the problems are more immediate. Data the company provided to lawmakers shows its average blackout duration has more than doubled to five hours. against less than half that time in 2020 since taking over the network in June, according to a New York Times report, although CEO Wayne Stensby said numbers for previous years underestimated downtime. The service disruptions sparked a protest that closed a freeway in San Juan in October.

Relations between LUMA Energy and Puerto Rican lawmakers also deteriorated to the point that a Puerto Rican judge found Stensby in contempt of court and issued an arrest warrant on November 10 for failing to provide requested documents. , including those relating to executive salaries and the composition and experience of its workforce. The judge then set aside the order after LUMA provided the documents.

The Puerto Rico grid was already “in pretty bad shape” due to deferred maintenance by PREPA, said Cathy Kunkel, energy program manager at Cambio PR, an organization promoting sustainable policies and strategies in Puerto Rico and the surrounding areas. Caribbean. But “the privatization of LUMA has certainly made matters worse.”

Prior to joining Cambio, Kunkel was the lead author of a report published in August by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis which described significant issues with the LUMA Energy contract as well as damaging voltage fluctuations and poor customer service. since the company took over the network. The report attributes the problems to understaffing, insufficient transparency and lack of effective oversight.

Stensby, in an Oct. 6 hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee, blamed a union blockade for a slow start to repair work and observed that “PREPA is arguably the worst performing public service in the world. United States by every measure. “

“It took two decades for PREPA to get into this state, we must not forget that, and that is why it is so important to start and keep moving forward,” he said. he declares. The company has since reached an agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which will represent LUMA’s linemen, while the company will invest $ 10 million in a technical training program for these workers.

LUMA said it made improvements in its first six months of managing the grid, such as upgrading more than 1,800 utility poles and dozens of critical distribution circuit breakers to reduce the likelihood of future outages.

“Any downtime is one too many and we’re working hard to make service and infrastructure improvements so customers see fewer downtime,” the company said in a Dec. 3 statement.

LUMA said it has connected solar panels for 12,000 customers since June, representing 50 megawatts of renewable energy. In September, LUMA also launched a map on its website to show customers and developers which areas could most easily accept solar projects. And the company said it was on track to clear a backlog of solar connection requests by January.

Moving forward with fossil fuels

In the meantime, the PREPA regulator has authorized the utility to begin preliminary work for a new unit powered by fossil fuels or energy storage at the Palo Seco oil-fired power plant to protect against fluctuations. short-term pricing of solar PV and battery storage and other potential reliability concerns. Environmental justice advocates opposed the project because of public health and other damage it could cause to neighboring communities.

Conservationists are hoping that with $ 9.4 billion in FEMA money going to Puerto Rico, the federal government will help tip the balance towards renewable energy. But in August, the agency dashed their hopes, saying work on the power grid in Puerto Rico would not have a significant impact on the environment.

A coalition called Alianza Energía Renovable Ahora, the Alliance for Renewable Energy Now, asked the agency in October to reconsider that finding. The coalition accused FEMA of opposing repeated instructions from Congress to divert funding for infrastructure vulnerable to storms, failing to comply with National Environmental Policy Act mandates to examine all energy alternatives and their climate impacts, and ignore environmental justice.

In particular, the group says the agency should consider alternatives such as battery energy storage and rooftop solar power.

A FEMA spokesperson said via email that it is carefully reviewing all applications and evaluating it.

But NRDC’s Martinez said FEMA could “put its foot on the ground” and say that funding proposals must meet the goals of the Biden administration, the requirements imposed by the Puerto Rico Bureau of Energy and the legislative objective of the island in terms of renewable energy.

“If they say that, I think it will clarify how much leeway the utility has to essentially become a thug,” he said. “They don’t follow what the law says or what the regulators say.”

A PREPA spokesperson could not be reached for comment, but a FEMA spokesperson said via email that “although FEMA has no position in the terms of the contract between PREPA and LUMA, FEMA worked with the government of Puerto Rico to maximize funding flexibility. , including the ability to harness renewable energy resources.

But Santiago de Queremos Sol said the island’s persistent power outages and slow transition to solar power pose a problem of environmental justice – one the Biden administration has the power to address.

“What we’re seeing right now is that anyone who can afford to buy solar power and batteries on the roof is doing it. The problem is, we don’t have a lot of people who can afford to do it on their own, ”she said. “The way to put this solution in place – and everyone agrees it’s a solution to have solar and battery-powered energy storage systems on the roof – is to use those federal funds.” . “