Energy & Environment

Puerto Ricans must be wary of offers to help solve energy crisis

After having lived through the "worst" and gotten used to misery, the people of Puerto Rico are about to experience the sequel to disaster - vultures will arrive to feast on the opportunities presented by recovery efforts.

Nowhere is this more true than with the island's electrical grid. This can be foreseen even amidst a "solar revolution" which is, without a doubt, the right way forward for a tropical island. There is a desperate need to develop a more resilient and cost-effective electric grid for Puerto Rico that relies much less on fossil fuels.

Right now, the challenges are immense. The electric grid is destroyed, with at least 80 percent of its transmission lines down. The electricity generation system is obsolete - most generators date back more than 40 years. And the electric authority (PREPA) is bankrupt.

 

So it's critical to keep a skeptical eye out, because many will come with promises of helping Puerto Rico, while really looking to cash in on a hefty bounty. And while these are not necessarily mutually exclusive actions, Puerto Rico needs to be careful not to forgo its future and fall prey to the vultures simply out of a desire to get back on its feet as fast as possible.

I am a strong advocate for solar, and believe it is essential for cities and states nationwide to commit to 100 percent renewable energy - nonetheless, it is important to proceed with caution so that these goals are achieved the right way.

Solar is an incredible opportunity, but does present the challenge of integrating with affordable energy-storage solutions so that power is available when the sun is not shining.

In Puerto Rico, obsolete fossil fuel plants are so archaic that it takes more than 24 hours to turn them on. Therefore, PREPA would need to keep them running regularly even if most people did have access to solar power. Relying on the current system risks making the effort to "solarize" the island inefficient or futile.

That's why Puerto Rico is in desperate need of developing smaller electric grids based on distributed generation, rather than the current centralized system. This should have occurred a long time ago, but PREPA instead became an inefficient monster with very high prices and poor service due to mismanagement, corruption and an antiquated business model based on selling electricity instead of services. The old model cannot work at a time when improvements in energy efficiency inevitably cut into business profits.

Therefore, Elon Musk's highly publicized proposal to engage in Puerto Rico is very welcome and comes at the right time. Having said that, the Puerto Rican government shouldn't just welcome any proposal without first studying it and carefully negotiating terms and conditions. That is especially true given that PREPA is bankrupt, cannot issue any debt and would need some level of private capital.

Instead of rushing to privatization, the governor should form a multi-stakeholder taskforce with short-term deadlines that includes experts from the private sector, academia, labor unions and civil society to analyze proposals and set priorities for transforming the system. Puerto Rico's new electrical system should be built on transparent, flexible, distributed, equitable, resilient, affordable and efficient solutions including community grids, through which citizens can be more independent of PREPA and be more involved in producing their own power.

We, the people of Puerto Rico, are in desperate need - but we shouldn't trade the next 50 years of electricity away for one year of urgency. It's time to look out for the collective well being of all Puerto Ricans, and maintain constant vigilance in the face of the inevitable fact that vultures may come dressed as angels.

Ramon Cruz, a member of the Sierra Club's National Board of Directors, is a former commissioner of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission and a former vice president of the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board.

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