Something good came out of Hurricane Maria striking Puerto Rico. It inspired the government to take action about converting to renewable energy. Even before the storm, there was debate about switching to renewables since the current grid is unreliable, and blackouts are common. Then, after the storm, their grid was completely destroyed causing the longest blackout in US history… and the lawmakers realized something had to be done. This was their chance to rebuild the electric grid to something better and greener.
A joint hearing by the house and Senate was held to consider a bill that would transition the island to 100% renewables. The bill calls for 20% renewable electricity by 2025, 50% by 2040, and 100% by 2050. Furthermore, the proposed legislation calls for ending coal power generation by 2028 and It requires all oil-fired power plants to convert to dual-fuel capacity within five years. Other states that have recently passed similar bills are California (with a goal of 100% renewables by 2045) and Hawaii (with the goal of becoming fully carbon neutral).
As for Puerto Rico, they needed a solution that could be more resilient in future storms. Also, they wanted a more cost-effective method. Electricity cost twice as much as it does on the mainland because importing fossil fuels to the island is expensive. It only makes sense to take advantage of the islands abundant sunshine and wind instead.
“Solar power changed everything,” says Javier Rua-Jovet, who lives in San Juan and now works as director of public policy in Puerto Rico for SunRun, the solar power company, which entered the market there this year because of the demand for solar power and battery storage systems. “People were hurled back from the first world to the third world in terms of energy.” During the blackout, some people were without power for up to 9 months!
And worst of all, some people died because they didn’t have the power to run a respirator or dialysis machine. “It became clear to everyone,” Rua-Jovet says, “that the energy paradigm needed to change. Long transmission lines crossing mountains, vulnerable in storms could be replaced by a more resilient system with energy distributed in many locations.” In response to this, SunRun (along with companies like Sonnen and Tesla) installed small solar microgrids–solar panels plus batteries to store the power–at sites like hospitals and fire stations.
Their action helped bolster the political case for more microgrids, something the new bill supports as part of the shift away from fossil fuels. The bill is designed to support “prosumers,” consumers who can install rooftop solar systems and then sell excess power to the grid and their neighbors. A request was put out from Puerto Rico to HUD currently asks for $100 million to go to solar power and storage. Such disaster funding from the federal government would help homeowners buy panels, although the request has not been granted yet.
As of now, the territory provides only four percent of its power from renewable sources. There’s a long way to go to get to 100% but the people still have hope. The storm “created broad consensus across the political spectrum,” says Rua-Jovet. “We have a pro-renewables governor. We have a pro-renewables Senate.” He’s optimistic that the bill will pass.