Several U.S. government agencies announced a plan to fix Puerto Rico’s ailing electrical grid and move it toward renewable energy. The initiative will combine efforts from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department Housing and Urban Development along with local policies to start a clean energy transition by 2025, with the goal of reaching 100% renewable energy on the island by 2050. For years, Puerto Ricans have suffered from frequent blackouts due to an old grid that has not had proper management or maintenance.
According to a statement from the DOE, this push to modernize Puerto Rico’s grid is part of the Biden administration’s commitment to ensure that $12 billion in federal aid for the island’s energy sector leads to a more resilient and sustainable grid. This is also part of the administration’s climate goals for putting the U.S. on a path to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
“I will make sure that every federal fund appropriated to Puerto Rico and allocated for the reconstruction of the power grid is used efficiently and effectively,” Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi (a former coal lobbyist) said in the DOE press release. “I thank the Biden Administration for partnering with us to help us achieve our main goal: transforming our energy system into a more resilient, reliable, affordable and clean one.”
Extreme weather, mismanagement from local officials, and insufficient funding have caused numerous widespread blackouts across the island. Long-lasting power outages occurred after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and in 2020 widespread earthquakes knocked out power for communities along the southern coast. An updated grid would mean fewer outages, and more renewable energy sources would mean less pollution for communities near the power plants along the island.
Part of the shift to renewable energy includes a DOE community-driven study— called PR100—which was funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to evaluate how Puerto Rico can achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050. The study will research the natural resources that could be used for the clean energy transition. It will also consider important factors for the transition, like the island’s economy and existing infrastructure. The study’s findings will be available by 2024, according to NBC News.
Another aspect of making the grid more resilient will include an emergency preparedness tool for 2022's upcoming hurricane season. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the DOE are working on this project, which the DOE says will “combine detailed models of the Puerto Rico electric system with hurricane forecasting to help the Government of Puerto Rico better prepare in the days leading up to a hurricane in order to accelerate the immediate response and save lives.”
This move will completely transform the island’s grid—today, only 3% of Puerto Rico’s energy comes from renewable sources, according to El Nuevo Día. The rest of the grid is powered by gas, petroleum, and the island’s last coal-fired power plant, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Puerto Ricans pay high energy prices amid a rapidly rising cost of living—meanwhile, more than 40% of the island lives in poverty and the median household income is about $20,000. Many residents cannot afford to buy or power generators every time there is a natural disaster.
The current dirty grid has dotted the island with coal ash piles, putting already vulnerable residents at risk of drinking contaminated water. A more resilient grid would mean fewer pollutants in the island’s drinking water, fewer heavy metals in the soil, and easier access to power after natural disasters.