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Puerto Rico hopes solar project will secure electric grid for future hurricanes

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Puerto Rico's electric power grid does not have a great track record when it comes to weathering powerful storms. Last year, Hurricane Fiona knocked out electricity for many across the island. And just six years ago, Hurricane Maria left large parts of Puerto Rico without power for months. That explains why many on the island favor building a decentralized grid, one that is more stable and more resilient and powered mostly by the sun. Our colleagues at Here & Now sent reporter Chris Bentley to look into this recently, and here's the story.

CHRIS BENTLEY, BYLINE: You can find what some people in Puerto Rico see as the future of the electric grid here in the mountains north of Ponce, where the Rio Cidra runs past the town square in Adjuntas. Even as the sun sinks behind the mountains, 14 businesses and two apartment buildings along the central plaza are running on solar power, thanks to two banks of batteries and some computers that orchestrate the flow of electricity among them. That is a microgrid - a self-reliant mini-utility run independently of the islandwide grid. Tucked behind a furniture store and a defunct gas station, there is a row of big, gray boxes, like industrial refrigerators. These are the guts of the Adjuntas microgrid.

CYNTHIA ARELLANO: And these guys are built for all conditions. They're built for strong winds. They're built for fire suppressant, just kind of inside the system. Rain, shine - they're built for kind of these Puerto Rico hurricane conditions.

BENTLEY: Yeah. And in this case, they don't mind a bunch of lizards running all over them.

ARELLANO: No. No, they're used to that, and they're very happy. Yeah.

BENTLEY: Cynthia Arellano is project manager for the Honnold Foundation, a nonprofit that helped Adjuntas build its microgrid. But the project started with Casa Pueblo, a local community organization that has run exclusively on solar for years.

ARELLANO: So after Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo became this example of what you could have if there was solar, if there was an alternative to the grid that, at the moment, was down for over 11 months here in Adjuntas.

BENTLEY: Arellano says the businesses benefiting from the microgrid took that example to heart and now essentially run their own mini-utility.

ARELLANO: The community was always like, OK, we have, now, this resiliency component. We have the solar. We have the battery. But we are going to charge ourselves for the power that we are consuming. We are going to reinvest that money into our own community. They are going to be managing, operating and just owning the entire system.

BENTLEY: Leading that effort is Gustavo Irizarry, who runs a pizza shop on the square.

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BENTLEY: He says the microgrid is about energy security.

GUSTAVO IRIZARRY: (Through interpreter) If something happens, like a hurricane or an earthquake, we have electricity security, and I have security for my employees because they know there will be work. That's why it's important to share energy, because the project is making a difference and making us a community.

BENTLEY: There are lots of communities in Puerto Rico trying to replicate what Adjuntas has. La Margarita is one of them. It's a neighborhood in the town of Salinas, which sees frequent flooding and power outages, especially after hurricanes. Many residents are elderly. Some of them live off a few hundred dollars a month in Social Security. And emergency preparedness is on everyone's mind here, says Wanda Rios, president of the neighborhood association.

WANDA RIOS: To have a resilient community, we have to have a resilient energy system.

BENTLEY: Earlier this year, they installed solar panels on their community center. But Rios wants the whole neighborhood to go solar and form a microgrid before the next big storm.

RIOS: You can have a generator for maybe two or three hours, and then you run out of gas. And when we have a hurricane, you don't have a gas neither. If we want to keep living and we want a clean environment, we have to move to solar, and that's it.

BENTLEY: Her group recently won a $30,000 federal grant, but they need a lot more. Rios says the Puerto Rican government is too slow to certify groups like hers as energy cooperatives so they can access other types of financing. And if Puerto Rico is going to make its goal of 100% renewable electricity by 2050, it'll need a lot more initiatives like this one.

RUTH SANTIAGO: The change isn't happening fast enough. We're only about 3 or 4% renewable energy.

BENTLEY: Ruth Santiago also lives in Salinas. She's a lawyer and activist, and she says the government should focus on people who can't afford the upfront costs to install solar themselves.

SANTIAGO: It's an equity issue. We're developing sort of a separate and unequal electric system here where poor communities that have less access to the financing or the loans or there's no public funding for these kinds of installations for low-income, middle-income people, well, they're left behind, and it's costing lives.

BENTLEY: Puerto Rico's electricity is generated at power plants far from the main population center in San Juan. It has to travel over power lines through the island's central mountain range, which is often pummeled by storms. That's why Santiago wants to see more rooftop solar and microgrids across the island instead of new renewable energy plants that she says replicate the vulnerabilities of the existing grid. She's part of a lawsuit against FEMA, alleging the agency failed to meaningfully consider that option when it allocated more than $11 billion in hurricane recovery money to rebuild the grid.

SANTIAGO: We've got to get out of this vicious cycle of depending on the centralized grid that gets knocked down with every hurricane or every other hurricane. It's a matter of the government listening to communities and people who are aware of the need for this transformation.

SHAY BAHRAMIRAD: So first of all, that statement that we are repairing and rebuilding the same - it was - it's highly inaccurate and factually incorrect.

BENTLEY: Shay Bahramirad is VP of engineering for LUMA, the power company in charge of Puerto Rico's electricity transmission. She says they're rebuilding the grid better than it was.

BAHRAMIRAD: We are elevating substations, we are relocating substations and we are adding number of additional points in the system to make sure that if something happens to one part of the electrical system, the entire island is not going to go dark. So fundamentally, the design of the system is completely different.

BENTLEY: And Bahramirad says they're committed to bringing online more solar as well as some microgrids. But there are challenges.

BAHRAMIRAD: I would say that the toughest part of this industry at this point is supply chain because of the events around the world and war and all sorts of different things. The delay in equipment - those equipment that they used to be delivered in 16 months, now we are talking about 28 or 60% longer than what it used to be.

BENTLEY: Another challenge - coordination between the myriad public and private operators of Puerto Rico's grid, one of whom, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, is bankrupt and still restructuring more than $9 billion in debt.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: We recognize that we're building on an old fossil fuel system.

BENTLEY: That's Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. secretary of energy. President Biden appointed her to lead what he called a supercharged effort to rebuild Puerto Rico's grid. In December, Congress approved $1 billion to, quote, "improve the resilience" of Puerto Rico's electric grid.

GRANHOLM: So, yes, there is some investment in rebuilding the grid so that people can have power today, but there is a much greater emphasis and desire to see the build out of this clean energy future.

BENTLEY: That includes several microgrid projects that the Department of Energy is helping develop in Puerto Rico, including on Vieques and Culebra, two smaller islands off Puerto Rico's eastern shore.

GRANHOLM: The damage to the electrical infrastructure following Irma and Maria left those islands without power for over 80 days with no - you know, no reliable backup power, including for having a hospital system. That's just unacceptable.

BENTLEY: There's still no microgrid. But Culebra is on its way to becoming the first all-solar island in the hemisphere. Nelson Melendez's house is already there.

Hola.

Blackouts are common on Culebra. Now, thanks to seven solar panels on his roof and a battery system on the front patio, Melendez says he never loses power.

NELSON MELENDEZ: As a matter of fact, yesterday, my neighbor called me - hey, the power went off. I haven't noticed (laughter).

BENTLEY: His house produces more energy than it consumes, so they're selling back to the grid on the main island. The low energy bill - just four bucks a month in fees, none for electricity - is great, Melendez says. But what he really values is the peace of mind.

MELENDEZ: Well, knowing that no matter what happens in the big island or whatever happens with the power generation, we're OK.

BENTLEY: Melendez's system was installed as part of a program by Fundacion Colibri and the Environmental Defense Fund to bring solar to about 10% of Culebra's buildings. Other homes have paid for their own solar panels, which means tiny Culebra is farther along in its goal of 100% renewable electricity than the main island. That's because the community has taken agency over their power situation out of necessity, says Braulio Quintero. He's the EDF's director for energy transition in Puerto Rico.

BRAULIO QUINTERO: I think a very important thing that our project here in Culebra is doing is giving power to the people, literally and figuratively talking and poetically talking, right? And I think even more powerful is a successful project here will demonstrate to other islands in the Caribbean and around the world what could be done.

BENTLEY: And in that way, he says, decentralizing power generation through microgrids and renewable energy - it's not about going it alone or getting rid of the grid altogether, but building an alternative within it from the community level on up.

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DETROW: Reporter Chris Bentley. His story originally aired on Here & Now as part of a series on climate change called Reverse Course.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUATARA'S "DUELING SHAMANS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Chris Bentley
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