GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico — Frequent energy crises are very common in Puerto Rico. Hurricanes are causing or aggravating most of these. Yet, the Puerto Rican government is attempting to ameliorate this by moving towards renewable, sustainable energy sources and away from fossil fuels, coal and liquefied natural gas. In 2019, it passed Act 17, a law stating that Puerto Rico must have 100% renewable energy by 2050. In September 2021, Puerto Rico received $9.4 billion from FEMA to improve its energy grid. And in 2022, the government began approving projects for solar panel plants. In March 2022, Financial Oversight and Management Board approved 18 projects from different companies. This all marks the start of Puerto Rico’s government’s journey toward more sustainable energy sources; improving the energy grid and helping prevent future Puerto Rico’s energy crises.
Puerto Rico’s Energy Crises
September 20, 2022, marks five years since Hurricane Maria made its way through Puerto Rico, causing “the second-longest blackout in human history.” Blackouts were the main cause of death after the storm. Today, the island’s still faulty power grid continuously causes energy crises. These crises stem from two main sources: the energy grid and the energy-producing sources. The grid suffered the most devastation after Hurricane Maria and the repairs have been insufficient for operations to run smoothly today. The energy-producing sources are mainly imported fossil fuels. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Oscar Funes, CEO of Enersys-Solar, said, its prices are very high and, “because of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine,” it has now risen to prices “we haven’t seen in a very long time;” resulting in “a lot of financial pressure.”
These issues have left Puerto Ricans vulnerable to constant blackouts and power issues. In April 2022, the island saw its worst power outage so far. The outage was due to a “fire at a power plant in the southwestern town of Guayanilla” and lasted from April 6 to April 11, when power was fully restored. Due to the electromagnetism in the energy grid, when the fire caused the Guayanilla station to fail, it brought down the entire grid and led to the island-wide blackout. The blackout also led to shutting off water supplies, hospitals resorting to backup generators and both schools and businesses closing, The New York Times reported.
How Solar Energy Could Help Puerto Rico
Outside of hurricane season, Puerto Rico receives year-round sunlight, making solar energy the perfect alternative to fossil fuels. Solar energy is also less expensive than the current energy sources and switching to solar energy could lower costs and address energy-related poverty issues. Solar energy and panels are also less “vulnerable” to hurricanes and storms than the current system. It is also eco-friendly and helps lower pollution caused by fossil fuels, coal and liquefied natural gases. Furthermore, solar power plants can help “improve the [grid’s] conditions since plants are located all over Puerto Rico” and help “mitigate the transmission cost,” since solar energy costs less than half, if not more, of “what it costs to produce energy from fossil fuels,” Funes added.
Solar Energy Projects
Now, Puerto Rico is beginning its journey to solar energy. Its government has begun looking at proposed power purchase and operating agreements (PPOAs), of which the Financial Oversight and Management Board has recently approved 18. These should provide “844 megawatts of electrical energy from renewable sources.” Through the 2019 law Act 17, Puerto Rico has a renewable energy goal to “draw 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2026, 60% by 2040 and 100% by 2050,” according to The San Juan Daily Star. With those 18 approved PPOAs, Puerto Rico’s government is now aiming to “generate 23% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2024.”
Among these projects are Enersys-Solar and Diverxia’s projects. Enersys-Solar is a solar energy company that develops and builds solar energy projects in Puerto Rico since the pandemic. Diverxia is “one of the most advanced and experienced companies from Europe in the development and construction of solar power plants,” Funes said about the company. Together, they submitted two cost-effective projects, one of 25 megawatts and another of 20 megawatts. One contains roughly 65,000 solar panels and the other contains roughly 80,000. Both projects are undergoing construction on uncultivated lots of land near cities and span roughly 3.02 miles each. Each project has two substations and its own energy storage. This can sustain any drops of voltage in the area and make the grid more stable.
Enersys-Solar and Diverxia expect to operate and own the projects for 25 years and sell energy to PREPA at lower costs than fossil fuels. The companies are now in the final phase of approvals and expect to start construction in the first or second quarter of 2023, which should take roughly 12-15 months and start providing energy to the grid by 2024. As Enersys-Solar’s CEO Oscar Funes said, “It’s a major step forward for the Puerto Rican energy matrix” and one in the direction of a cleaner, more sustainable energy.
Durability and Sustainability
The most important aspects of these projects are sustainability and durability. Solar power is more resilient. These PPOAs are “very simple projects,” according to Funes, but they are also “done in the most qualified way,” which makes them durable and resilient against hurricanes. Solar power also helps “[reduce]carbon emissions to the environment,” he added. Energy production using fossil fuels creates a lot of “toxic residues” and contamination, Funes continued. These all affect the environment and worsen global warming, leading to more constant and destructive storms.
Once it improves the energy grid and completes these projects, Puerto Rico will begin to reap the benefits. It is still a long way ahead, as the grid needs to work efficiently before these solar energy projects can become its new fuel. But, if the government continues in the direction it is heading, it can expect to have better energy and lower Puerto Rico’s energy crises in the next 20 years; not to mention tackling the energy-related poverty on the island with the lowered costs of solar power.
— Marcela Agreda L.