Puerto Rico’s solar energy insurrection


A year after Hurricane Maria, something amazing is happening in Puerto Rico. – The energy insurrection. This is what we call it. The storm almost completely destroyed the island’s energy grid, and thousands died from the lack of power in the months that followed.

But the tragedy has forced the government to completely rethink how its electricity is generated and delivered. – We want to be as aggressive, as bold, and as fearless as we can. Companies like Tesla, Sunrun, and Sunnova have rushed in with cutting edge solar energy and battery systems.

And Puerto Rico is the perfect test case. It gets a ton of sun and wind, and importing fossil fuels is really expensive. – This is our moonshot moment for Puerto Rico. If Puerto Rico pulls it off, the result will be the power grid of the future.

I’m Michael Coren. This is Quartz. Please subscribe to our channel. There’s a battle being fought in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. Alexis Massol-González founded Casa Pueblo almost 40 years ago. The community-based organization was one of the first to show that Puerto Rico could trade fossil fuels for solar power.

The island’s power grid was unreliable long before Hurricane Maria. Casa Pueblo disconnected from it. So when disaster struck, they were ready. – Because we’re organized, because we don’t depend upon politicians or the government, we were prepared to deal with the adversity that Hurricane Maria caused on the region.

Alexis, and his son Arturo, who now runs Casa Pueblo, don’t trust the government to solve the country’s energy problems. And they’re not alone. If you ask people what’s to blame for the decrepit, unreliable grid that existed before the hurricane, you inevitably hear: PREPA.

PREPA. PREPA. PREPA. PREPA. PREPA PREPA. PREPA. PREPA. PREPA: The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. It’s the government-run electric utility. The sole supplier for the island. It was $9 billion in debt before Maria.

A major corruption scandal in 2015 sparked lawsuits and a Puerto Rico Senate investigation. But to truly build the energy of the future, Puerto Rico needs PREPA, or something like it. To understand why, you first need to understand how a traditional energy system works.

In most of the world, a central power plant generates energy, sending it to houses and businesses along a network of transmission lines. Utilities earn money by charging customers for the energy they use.

Power plants typically run on coal or natural gas, so the fossil fuel lobby has a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. Many in Puerto Rico want to build a decentralized system, where each house generates and stores its own energy from renewable sources like solar.

But the grid still connects them, so they can share energy, and the utility serves as a backup, with its own network of renewable power plants. These microgrids can keep the power flowing, even if a disaster like Hurricane Maria damages transmission lines.

– Think about energizing the roof surfaces of all the houses in Puerto Rico, and having them somehow link to each other. The grid is already out there. To do it, Puerto Rico needs to come up with an alternative utility model, one where customers pay for resiliency, not just the energy they use.

For now, PREPA says it’s still studying the best way forward. – Will the island consist of a network of microgrids in the future? – That’s… that’s one of the ways that we are seeing through.

.. the time. This is José Sepúlveda. He’s in charge of rebuilding transmission lines for PREPA. – If you were going to build the first microgrid in Puerto Rico, where do you think that would be? – I think it’s going to be Vieques and Culebra.

The small island of Vieques is home to about 9,000 people, eight miles off the Puerto Rican mainland. – Vieques definitely is a great case study, not only for Puerto Rico, but also for the main island.

Omar Marrero leads the government agencies overseeing some 9,000 rebuilding projects started after Maria. In Vieques, those projects offer a vision of what a wide-scale, distributed energy system could actually look like.

Vieques lost its entire power connection to the main island. It needs the energy grid of the future right now. – Vieques’s submarine cable was affected by the hurricane, so we don’t have that « long-term » solution right now.

Alongside the beautiful beaches and mangrove forests in Vieques, you’ll find solar panels, generators and Tesla batteries. Tesla. Elon Musk’s electric car company. It’s helping power Vieques with utility-scale battery systems, so residents have reliable access to basic necessities, like water.

The water pumping station runs almost completely on solar panels and battery storage. Now, the biggest threat isn’t a hurricane. It’s wild horses that trample the panels. Arcelia Rosario is a nurse with the Ciudad Dorada senior center in Vieques.

Hundreds of elderly Puerto Ricans died after the hurricane because the facilities caring for them went without power. Now, Tesla’s set up solar panels and batteries, so the center can refrigerate food and operate basic equipment for residents, independent from the grid.

– Do you want a system like this for your home? – What do you have now? – And what has the utility told you about when they will fix it? – Nothing? Tesla isn’t the only one in Puerto Rico trying to build the energy grid of the future.

On the main island, companies like Sunnova are selling solar panels and battery systems to people directly. After the hurricane, their customers want reliability. – Well, right now I can say that 95% of the customers’ interest in putting in this system is just to be prepared for our next hurricane, or because they are aware that the grid is not stable.

These companies are saying, Look. Not only can we give you reliable power, we can do it cheaper than the utility. And it’s working. Puerto Ricans are investing in solar power. And all these local efforts, from Sunnova, to Tesla, to the activists in Adjuntas, could force the government to commit to a distributed, renewable system.

– Puerto Rico is producing 0.41% of the total energy needs with the sun. That’s very, I mean, that’s pretty shameful. Like, we have so much sun. We can do 100%. This month, Puerto Rican lawmakers will debate a bill that would require all energy generation on the island to be 100% renewable by 2050.

To get to 100%, Puerto Rico will also need to build renewable power plants on its grid. More than $18 billion is going to pour into Puerto Rico thanks to a US federal aid package passed early last year.

For now, the government is repairing the transmission lines that connect homes and businesses. – We want to concentrate first on the TND, and then go to the generation. In the meantime, the price of solar and batteries keeps going down, and if enough people install home solar, it will make more economic sense for the island to go 100% renewable.

– I don’t see it happening from the top to the bottom. I see it happening from the bottom up. From the US to Australia, countries are struggling with aging, unreliable power grids. And storms are getting stronger because of climate change.

If they can make it work, Puerto Rico will become a model for the world.