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A New Dawn: Disasters as Drivers to Energy Transformation

Carlos G Cabrera Rivera and Emmanuel J Alvarado Nazario


  • Puerto Rico has legal and practical challenges to renew the electrical system. 
  • Advocates from the state government, federal government, and communities provide their insight and possible solutions in order to create a modernized and resilient energy system in Puerto Rico 
  • This was part of the Disaster Recovery and Resilience Conference dated February 8, 2024. 
A New Dawn: Disasters as Drivers to Energy Transformation
Bloomberg Creative via Getty Images

This article is also available in Spanish.

Puerto Rico is currently in its biggest energy transformation since the 1940s. Hurricanes María and Irma have devastated the electrical grid, aggravating the already depleted electrical system, resulting in mass outages and the subsequent privatization of energy generation, transmission, and distribution. In response to this energy uncertainty, renewable energy has become an alternative to achieve energy independence and resiliency. This integration has also raised concerns and challenges to the stability of the electrical grid.

This was the central topic of “A New Dawn: Disasters as Drivers to Energy Transformation panel, as part of the Disaster Recovery and Resilience Conference organized by the ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources. The conference was held at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law on February 8, 2024. The panelists were Agustín Carbó, director of the Grid Recovery and Modernization Team for the Department of Energy; Ruth “Tata” Santiago, environmental lawyer and activist; and Lilian Mateo, Associate Commissioner of the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (PREB). Each of them provided challenges and solutions to meet the renewable energy goals stated in Act 17-2019 and achieve energy independence and resiliency.

The Puerto Rico Energy and Power Authority (PREPA) is a government-owned utility that owns the equipment for generating, transmitting, and distributing energy. Today, private companies operate the generation (Genera PR), transmission, and distribution of the system (LUMA Energy). The electrical system serves 1.4 million customers across 78 municipalities. Although it has 6 gigawatts (GW) installed capacity, it operates with a little above 3 GW, which is nearly the same as the demand. Around 94 to 97 percent of all the energy produced is based on fossil fuels, and 70 percent of the electrical generation is in the south of Puerto Rico. Around 766 megawatts (MW) are from distributed energy resources (DERs)—rooftop solar—and 254 MW is from renewable independent power producers (IPP). 

Mateo presented three main concerns with the reality of the electrical system. Modernizing the grid is too expensive and neither PREPA nor Puerto Rico’s central government has the capacity to issue new debt to finance the projects. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) just started to disburse funds, but its purpose is to replace and not modernize the damaged electrical systems. In other words, the old equipment damaged from the hurricanes must be replaced with the same old equipment, instead of newer and more efficient equipment. From this uncertainty, there is a growing number of applications for interconnection of the grid, which is a good indicator of a rise in DERs but also makes energy production unsteady, especially at night. 

In the community sector, Santiago has vast experience working as an environmental lawyer and activist. Living in the south of Puerto Rico, she understands the consequences of having most of the energy produced in the south: air emissions, water pollution, and adverse effects of ashes in the area. The south of Puerto Rico is the first place of impact for most of the storms that enter the islands, affecting most of the energy production. As far as renewables, she states that Puerto Rico is creating a separate-parallel-unequal system in which those who can afford a solar panel system can have energy security, but most of the people are energy insecure and still dependent on the centralized system. 

Carbó provided his perspective as the first director of PREB and now as part of the Department of Energy. Since Acts 57-2014 and 17-2019 give primary jurisdiction to the PREB, the role of the Department of Energy has served as an advisor to expedite the recovery process at the state and federal levels. The Department of Energy created an Emergency Resiliency Fund, with a $1 billion fund to modernize the electrical grid with renewable energy. One of his primary challenges was developing relationships with communities as part of the Emergency Resiliency Fund. He recognizes that the immense penetration of renewable sources requires a stable electrical grid. 

During the panel session, Santiago, Carbó, and Mateo have provided possible solutions. Santiago worked with a nongovernmental organization called Queremos Sol (We Want Sun), which did a study supporting the implementation of DER systems across Puerto Rico and transitioning the electrical system to a locally produced one. One study objective is to reduce the dependency on the transmission and distribution of the system. She also acknowledges that pilot projects had been expensive and had required volunteers and donations to fund and build them. She recognizes that even though there is a movement to renewable energy, the system players are moving to natural gas as a transition to renewable energy, which is unnecessary. Santiago exhorted and advocated for better energy literacy across communities. 

In his presentation, Carbó added he worked with the PR 100 study, conducted by the Department of Energy and six energy laboratories, to search for and present possible alternatives to meet Act 17-2019 goals. These are to meet 100 percent energy from renewable sources by 2050. He acknowledges that it will be hard to meet 40 percent by the end of 2025, but it is still possible. The agency (DOE) also has the Solar Ambassadors Program, which identifies low-income communities to build renewable energy projects. The Solar Ambassadors Program is tied to the initiative of the Energy Resiliency Fund. 

Mateo wants to create a modernized and flexible grid with a diverse portfolio of energy sources. She envisions a prosumer model where individuals buy and sell energy. To achieve this, Puerto Rico still needs a central grid and a backbone transmission system to distribute the energy. Mateo concluded that the electrical grid needs: significant investment to modernize, strategize for the weaknesses of DERs, and stabilize the electrical grid. 

At the end, it will take a significant amount of funding, flexibility of FEMA funds, and a combined effort from communities, state government, and the federal government in order to achieve a strong and resilient renewable energy system in Puerto Rico.