Tremors began shaking Puerto Rico just before New Year’s Eve, causing anxiety but only minimally disrupting festivities. On Three Kings Day, January 6, families across the island observed one of its most important holidays, with children awakening to gifts left by the biblical kings. In the predawn hours after the celebration, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit, jerking people out of their beds. Its epicenter on the southern coast was mere miles from the Costa Sur power plant, which provides about a quarter of the island’s electricity by burning natural gas and oil. The jolts knocked giant boilers off their bases, opened a fissure in one of the turbines, and destroyed the control center where the computers that run the system operate. Another natural gas plant, EcoEléctrica, was also damaged.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of the physical damage on the island was isolated in the south, all of Puerto Rico was plunged into darkness. It was déjà vu for many who had withstood months without electricity after Hurricane Maria, when a year and a half passed before power was fully restored.
The earthquake’s impact on Puerto Rico’s power grid was the opposite of Maria’s. During Maria, it was the transmission lines that were destroyed across the island. With the earthquake, it was the power plants themselves. But in both situations, the problem was essentially the same: Puerto Rico’s electric grid is too centralized to be resilient. While about 70 percent of power is generated in the south, 70 percent of demand is in the north.
Photos: Christopher Gregory
In the rural community of Adjuntas, located in Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior, residents struggled with boredom and anxiety as they endured aftershocks in darkness. As the days passed, many were forced to throw away refrigerators full of rotting food. But, unlike elsewhere on the island, some of the most vulnerable community members kept their electricity on, thanks to rooftop solar panels installed after Maria.
Thirty-one-year-old Shandia Pérez has three children with autism. Her 11-year-old daughter’s specialized diet requires refrigeration, and her 8-year-old son fears the dark, an anxiety that can induce asthma attacks, which Pérez manages using a machine for respiratory therapy. But electricity was one thing the family didn’t have to worry about after the earthquake. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, the nearby environmental nonprofit Casa Pueblo had identified her family as having significant electricity needs and installed solar panels on her roof.
“We have the security that we’ll at least have light,” Pérez said. “As a mother, it gives me peace psychologically and emotionally.”
Immediately following the hurricane, Casa Pueblo’s solar-fueled headquarters buzzed with community members trying to cope with the power outages. After the earthquake, “we were not as busy,” said the organization’s board president, Arturo Massol Deyá. The homes of aging residents who require dialysis, a restaurant that supplied meals in the aftermath the storm, and a barbershop that functions as a community hub are just a few of the 150 locations where Casa Pueblo installed panels after Maria. The earthquake proved that the system worked.
The federal and local governments were not as successful in rebuilding a resilient power infrastructure.
Within a week of the earthquake, officials were bragging that power had been restored on most of the island, but it was a fragile recovery. An estimated 20,000 people remained displaced, with 7,000 living in refugee facilities — many of them informal camps, since the schools that have historically been used in emergency situations do not meet modern building codes designed to withstand earthquakes. The Costa Sur plant will remain out of commission for at least a year, according to the publicly owned power authority, PREPA. And the electricity enjoyed by 99 percent of residents was little comfort for the 3,564 who remained without power. Occasional blackouts continued.
The earthquake “highlights the fragility of the system in general and that we haven’t done much in terms of moving from fossil fuels to renewables” or shifting to a decentralized grid, said Sergio Marxuach, an expert in energy policy at the Puerto Rican think tank Center for a New Economy. “If we had done that, we wouldn’t have seen outages across the island.”
For now, Puerto Rico’s electric grid is running on backup units, burning dirtier, more expensive diesel. This summer will be a dangerous time. Not only does energy demand go up by around 10 percent as the temperatures rise, but hurricane season will start in June with Puerto Rico running on a compromised system.
If PREPA is unable to pay for new generators, it will have to begin forced blackouts throughout the island when summer hits. “I would have to suspend service to 20 percent or 25 percent of the customers every day,” the island’s top energy official, José Ortiz, said in an interview with the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día. The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied an initial application for assistance.
That’s not the way it was supposed to go. Nearly a year ago, the governor of Puerto Rico signed a law to much fanfare committing the island to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The press emphasized that the system would rely on solar arrays powering distributed microgrids, so that if infrastructure went out on one part of the island, it wouldn’t impact other areas.
“Whatever we do now might affect the next two generations.”
But critics say the pledge was smoke and mirrors. Buried in the same legislation was a road map for building out natural gas infrastructure likely to lock in consumption of fossil fuels and a centralized grid for decades to come. That plan has already begun to be implemented. Natural gas infrastructure has gone up seemingly overnight. “They’re obviously prioritizing natural gas over everything else,” Marxuach said.
At least eight U.S. states and territories have set mandates that local energy systems move to 100 percent renewable or clean energy over the next 30 years. But whether the ambitious commitments will be met with meaningful action is yet to be seen.
There are few places where the stakes are so high and the margin of error so thin as in Puerto Rico. If electricity becomes too expensive and unreliable — as it is poised to with the impacts of climate change intensifying — Puerto Ricans will be forced to abandon the island.
“The important thing is to get it right,” said Marxuach. “Whatever we do now might affect the next two generations.”
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, the power system’s failure was a key factor in the estimated 4,645 deaths associated with the storm. Hospitals and senior homes lost air conditioning and refrigeration. Vital communication networks stopped functioning in part due to a lack of power. Illnesses and injuries that would normally be manageable spiraled into health crises.
In response, a movement demanding an island-wide shift to rooftop solar energy was born. For Massol Deyá and his parents — Alexis Massol González and Tinti Deyá Díaz, who founded Casa Pueblo — a vision evolved of an Adjuntas that relied on itself for electricity and disaster management, not the local or federal governments. In addition to installing solar panels, Casa Pueblo expanded a farm project to enhance the community’s food security.
It wasn’t just resiliency that emerged. Much of Puerto Rico’s politics have been defined by lines dividing those who want statehood for the island and those who want the island to be independent of U.S. governance. It’s a fight that has at times overlooked the immediate needs of the people. But another kind of politics was developing in Adjuntas. “The people are different. They’ve learned to break the energy dependence. They are people who run their own system,” Massol González said. It’s a concept known as auto-gestión, which roughly translates to “self-management,” and which many islanders view as key to breaking the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
As Massol González put it, “Inside a colony, energy independence is revolutionary.” Casa Pueblo began to call for no less than an “energy insurrection.”
At face value, the momentum for renewable energy seemed to extend to the island’s government. In the wake of the storm, Puerto Rico’s legislature introduced a bill to shift 50 percent of the island’s power to renewable energy by 2050. Potential seed money for the new energy system appeared around the same time. The U.S. Congress set aside $2 billion to restore and modernize the power grid.
Photos: Christopher Gregory for The Intercept
But there were other forces at play. Puerto Rico had been in a recession for more than a decade, and the island’s debt ballooned as Wall Street took advantage of tax breaks and lax regulations. In 2016, Barack Obama’s administration appointed a Financial Oversight Management Board, known locally as “the junta,” to control the island government’s spending and come up with a plan to pay back creditors. PREPA, the power authority, was responsible for a large proportion of the debt: $9 billion.
So in January 2018, then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced that he would privatize PREPA. Many Puerto Ricans viewed the move as the latest in a series of austerity measures meant to appease debt-holders at the expense of the people. Although it’s true that the agency had long been plagued by corruption and mismanagement, under-regulated capitalism had wreaked havoc on the island — and many doubted that the free market would offer rates and resiliency favorable to the island’s population. Duke Energy, PSEG Services, and a consortium of utility companies soon emerged as top contenders to take over the transmission and distribution system. The privatization would give the winner’s shareholders a disproportionate say in the island’s future.
“Inside a colony, energy independence is revolutionary.”
Meanwhile, despite the growing momentum within the government for a transition to renewable energy, it was clear that government officials did not view organizations like Casa Pueblo as a partner in the shift. “With PREPA, we have never been invited to talk about it or discuss an alternative,” said Massol Deyá. “We’ve had no support or dialogue at all.”
In fact, Casa Pueblo has long been at odds with the Puerto Rican government. Massol González founded the organization to fight plans for an open-pit mine, and its early history is recorded in a foot-high stack of police files. For decades until the mid-1980s, with the support of the FBI, Puerto Rican police intensively surveilled anyone who could be framed as an adversary of the government — including environmental activists. The files, which Massol González and his family accessed after such political surveillance was outlawed, revealed that nearly every meeting the organization held had been reported in detail to the police. One of Massol González’s closest confidants, it turned out, had been working for law enforcement. Massol Deyá, a child at the time, is mentioned repeatedly in the documents.
Photos: Christopher Gregory for The Intercept
The mine was ultimately canceled, and Casa Pueblo went on to beat back a natural gas pipeline proposal in the early-2010s. Throughout the fight, Massol Deyá, who had also been pushing the U.S. Navy to clean up contamination from bomb testing on the island of Vieques, was routinely detained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when he flew. Although Casa Pueblo’s purpose continued to evolve, it’s not clear that the government’s view of the organization ever changed. In the summer after the hurricane, Rep. Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Casa Pueblo, a signal that the organization’s goals were becoming increasingly mainstream. Later that day, as Massol Deyá returned home with his daughter after sharing a meal at a local pizzeria, he was handcuffed and arrested by police who claimed that he had been driving drunk.
No fewer than three prosecutors from Puerto Rico’s Justice Department, which was led at the time by current Gov. Wanda Vázquez, attended his trial. A receipt and testimony from the pizzeria owner would show that Massol Deyá had consumed only a Coca-Cola, and the judge dismissed the case. To Massol Deyá, it was obviously a smear attempt by Puerto Rican officials meant to discredit Casa Pueblo’s work by framing him as a drunk and a criminal. Puerto Rico’s Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The government’s hostility did little to slow the movement for community solar. In October 2018, a coalition of activists, engineers, and academics released a proposal titled “Queremos Sol,” or “We Want Sun.” The plan called on elected officials to double the renewable energy goal to 100 percent renewables by 2050. Rather than building solar installations on land that could be viable for food production, the panels would be constructed on dead spaces: rooftops, landfills, brownfields, parking lots. The proposal suggested some of the investment money could come out of federal hurricane recovery funds.
Queremos Sol allowed for the temporary use of fuels like natural gas but demanded a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants. And it called for a full audit of the debt and the elimination of commitments that passed on the debt burden to PREPA customers.
Power in Puerto Rico is more expensive than in any U.S. state outside of Hawaii. Over the lifetime of a rooftop system, it’s cheaper for the average energy user to disconnect from the grid and rely on solar panels than it is to pay PREPA’s rates, said Agustín Irizarry Rivera, a University of Puerto Rico engineering professor and member of the coalition that developed Queremos Sol. Within five years, the cost of rooftop solar is likely to drop lower than the rates associated with imported natural gas.
However, installing solar involves a steep initial investment. Without sufficient public support, only individuals or communities that have money to invest will be able to buy panels. As those with resources abandon the grid for cheaper and more resilient solar, the power grid’s client base will shrink, forcing rates to rise. The gap between the rich and the poor will widen, and Puerto Rico’s most impoverished will be left with more expensive, less reliable power. When storms hit, the poor will be left alone in the dark — and those who can will simply move away, further shrinking the power authority’s revenues.
“There are no technical barriers here,” said Irizarry Rivera. “Political will is the impediment to developing renewables around the world, and Puerto Rico is no exception.”
Within a few weeks of the energy proposal’s release, Rosselló tweeted that he supported the goal of 100 percent renewables by 2050. But when the governor signed the renewable energy legislation, the Energy Public Policy Act, last April, advocates for Queremos Sol were not impressed. “They did take on the 100 percent renewable energy goal for 2050, but that’s where the similarities end,” said Ruth Santiago, another collaborator on the plan and an organizer with the Jobos Bay Eco-Development Initiative, which is developing a community solar system in the south.
Massol Deyá agreed. “They are setting goals they are not intending to comply with,” he said. “It’s a means to stop the transition that is being pushed from the bottom up.”
Another vision of Puerto Rico’s energy future was emerging in parallel to Queremos Sol. Last February, PREPA released a first draft of its $15 billion Integrated Resource Plan, prepared by the multinational industrial firm Siemens, which divided the island into eight minigrids, and included a significant investment in solar battery storage. It also proposed an array of new liquid natural gas import facilities, pipelines, and natural gas-fired power plants.
PREPA’s head, José Ortiz, explained the plan to an audience of executives from the liquid natural gas industry a month later at the American LNG Summit, held in Puerto Rico only days before the renewable energy legislation passed. Over the next two years, natural gas infrastructure would be placed in locations along the four cardinal directions of the island, he said, replacing oil-fueled generation. Renewables would come later, “as quick as the price dictates.” It would be unwise to invest in them now, Ortiz added, when in a few years, they would become significantly cheaper.
PREPA’s history of mismanagement was not proving to be an impediment to the natural gas buildout, he assured. Investors were already lining up, including Singapore-based Puma Energy, a company with ties to Elías Sánchez, a notoriously corrupt political powerbroker on the island; New Fortress Energy, whose co-founder is a major Democratic Party donor; and AES, owner of the island’s only coal plant, for which Pedro Pierluisi, a top contender for the island’s 2020 governor’s race, once lobbied.
PREPA did not respond to requests for comment, but a hint as to why the power authority would encourage such investment lies in the campaign contribution records of Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón, the island’s only elected representative in Washington, D.C. Her two top contributors since 2016 are Crowley Maritime Corp., which donated a total of $12,900, and Saltchuk Resources Inc., which donated $15,500.
Crowley is a major shipper of liquid natural gas between Jacksonville, Florida, and Puerto Rico and a contender for supplying PREPA’s proposed gas-powered microgrids with LNG. Meanwhile, Saltchuk’s subsidiary TOTE is responsible for the world’s first LNG-powered container ships, two of which operate between Florida and Puerto Rico. The company hopes to spark “the proliferation of natural gas as a transportation fuel.” The other two such ships operating out of Jacksonville, named El Coquí, after a small frog whose song is ubiquitous in Puerto Rico, and the Taíno, after the Indigenous people of the island, are owned by Crowley. A booming LNG business in Puerto Rico would be a boon for those companies — and many others. The resident commissioner did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s no mystery why the companies donated to González Colón. The resident commissioner is an evangelist for LNG on the island. She co-hosted the 2019 American LNG Summit with Florida Rep. Ted Yoho, and the pair has co-sponsored a bill to make LNG export easier. At the summit last march, González Colón and some of Puerto Rico’s top officials stood up one by one asserting support for a common vision: Puerto Rico as a Caribbean hub for liquid natural gas. It’s an idea that’s been around since before Hurricane Maria — gubernatorial candidate Pierluisi, for example, advocated for it when he served as resident commissioner — but it gained new traction after the storm, picking up Republicans in the States as well as Puerto Rican policymakers.
In welcoming remarks at the conference, Rosselló urged attendees from the industry “to at some point see [Puerto Rico] as a connector of the Americas where we can not only use the LNG, but also become an important hub toward transporting it.”
“After the storm there is opportunity,” he said. “There is a government that is willing to make policy changes. There is a clear path of where we want to go with LNG.”
Beyond the laudable goal of 100 percent renewable energy, much of the rest of the Energy Public Policy Act is in line with that vision. The law demands that all existing and future power plants that process fossil fuels become capable of handling at least two types of fuel, one of which must be natural gas. It also lays out a pathway for PREPA’s privatization.
Like Massol Deyá and the authors of Queremos Sol, the public officials advocating for natural gas saw the power transition required in the wake of the hurricane as a means to develop a new kind of economy. But while Massol Deyá’s vision looked inward, toward communities empowered to support themselves and their neighbors, the Puerto Rican government’s plan was to use the grid rehabilitation to attract outside investors and become a key node in a global fossil fuel economy.
Another proposal that will define Puerto Rico’s energy future came in April: the junta’s proposed debt restructuring agreement. The junta’s vision of Puerto Rico’s future is grim. According to a spokesperson for the Financial Oversight Management Board, Matthias Rieker, it’s inevitable that people will continue to divest from the grid. “We don’t think the Puerto Rican economy is going to grow very robustly. We think the population is going to continue decline in Puerto Rico,” he explained. The grid is notoriously unreliable, he continued, and businesses in particular are beginning to disconnect and operate on their own systems.
The unelected board members proposed raising rates for all energy consumers via a “transition charge,” which would start at 2.7 additional cents per kilowatt hour and eventually rise to 4.5 cents. PREPA customers who installed rooftop solar panels would pay the creditors’ fee on all energy they used, including what they generated themselves, a highly unusual arrangement.
Most people who install solar panels stay connected to the grid to ensure consistent access to power. To disconnect entirely and avoid any outages would require individuals to purchase an excess of battery storage, which can be expensive. Utilities typically charge customers for the amount of energy they consume from the grid, minus the amount they contribute from their solar panels. A meter measures the amount of energy a house is taking in, as well as the amount it is adding to the grid.
The restructuring plan would eliminate at least a few of the dollars rooftop solar users save every month on energy — which for some could be enough to render solar unfeasible. It would also require PREPA customers with rooftop solar to install a second meter to measure the energy traveling between the solar panels and the home, since standard meters do not measure how much power a home system is pulling from solar. The meter could cost as much as $1,000 per home — essentially a regressive tax, since it would most impact those with small systems.
The government’s plan was to use the grid rehabilitation to attract outside investors and become a key node in a global fossil fuel economy.
Mike Henchen, an expert in utility systems from the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, said he’s unaware of any utility in the U.S. that charges rooftop solar operators fees on the solar energy they consume themselves. The policy conflicts with the renewable energy legislation, Henchen and others have pointed out, which states that the system must facilitate and not hinder rooftop power producers’ ability to connect to the grid.
Rieker, the oversight board spokesperson, told The Intercept that the Energy Public Policy Act applies to PREPA rates and wouldn’t govern the junta’s transition charge. Although the board thinks PREPA should stop using expensive diesel, it is agnostic about what kind of power the agency should substitute. The charge for solar energy consumption is a “matter of fairness,” Rieker argued. “Without that requirement, customers who do not have the financial means to install their own energy generators or solar panels, or customers who cannot install their own systems because they live in apartment buildings, would bear higher costs.” He didn’t mention that the charge would incentivize wealthier people to leave the grid entirely, after which they would bear no transition fees at all.
Marxuach called this “typical BS from the board” and pointed to a report from the consulting company London Economics International that found that the transition charges will only speed up the decline in electricity demand, increasing the burden on those forced to continue relying on PREPA, the lowest-income Puerto Ricans.
Overall, Marxuach takes a more conservative view than the Queremos Sol advocates. He argues that placing solar on most of the island’s rooftops could be a “logistical nightmare,” and that Puerto Rico may need large solar arrays. But he says the plans put forward by the government and the junta are both illogical.
Hypothetically, you could operate microgrids with a mix of energy, which might include small natural gas plants, he told The Intercept. But Puerto Rico is running on a shoestring budget, and to be as efficient as possible, natural gas plants have to be big and located on the coast, so they can access imported liquid natural gas.
PREPA’s integrated resource plan does not account for sea level rise. Furthermore, “Those plants work with a specific kind of grid,” Marxuach said. “That forecloses in a way on the smaller producers connecting to the grid.” Puerto Rico simply does not have the resources to build out one energy grid only to replace it with another a few years later. When renewable prices drop, Puerto Rico will remain locked into a natural gas energy economy.
“The tradeoff of doing it that way is the resilience component is not there,” Marxuach said.
Both PREPA’s integrated resources plan and the debt restructuring plan still await approval, yet natural gas infrastructure is already being built.
Last March, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in the capital of San Juan for a facility that will deliver imported natural gas to two new generators for the San Juan power plant. Soon afterward, officials signed an agreement to widen the San Juan Harbor’s channels, allowing for bigger shipments of liquid natural gas.
At another plant in the San Juan area, called Palo Seco, two new gas-compatible generators have been installed, and the government is in the midst of accepting bids for the construction of an entirely new gas-fired plant. On the west side of the island, in Mayagüez, the conversion of another power plant to natural gas is underway.
“My guess is their strategy is, let’s change the facts on the ground, and once we get things started it, will be hard to turn back,” Marxuach said.
Lydia Díaz Rodríguez helps manage a community farm in the devastatingly beautiful southeastern municipality of Yabucoa. Lemon trees, yuca, and pineapple grow high on a mountain with a stunning vista of the turquoise sea. If the government’s plans come to fruition, Díaz Rodríguez may someday have a view of a floating offshore LNG import facility and a corresponding natural gas plant on land.
For years, Díaz Rodríguez pushed for chemical and fossil fuel companies operating in the area, such as Union Carbide and Sun Oil, to cut air emissions and water pollution and take responsibility for the rampant respiratory issues researchers had linked to heavy industry. With the recession, many corporations have since left. “We already paid our quota. Why do they want to sacrifice us again?” she wondered. The organization she leads, called the Yabucoan Committee for Quality of Life, is holding community meetings and organizing to stop the natural gas infrastructure.
If anywhere is ripe for a popular movement around energy transformation, it’s Puerto Rico. Last July, Puerto Ricans poured into the streets, forcing Rosselló to resign after the Center for Investigative Journalism published private text messages revealing corruption as well as callous jokes about the bodies that had piled up in morgues after the hurricane. The importance of the power grid and the unelected junta was lost on no one. “Ricky resign and take the junta with you” became a rallying cry.
It’s a connection that will remain essential if the movement for renewable energy is to be successful. After the earthquake, unused hurricane relief supplies, including dozens of cases of bottled water, were discovered in a warehouse in the earthquake-ravaged south, propelling people into the streets yet again, this time demanding the resignation of Rosselló’s replacement, Wanda Vázquez. But many of those present were aware of the limitations of that demand.
In the coming months, the fate of Congress’s $2 billion in energy aid will be determined, but it’s not Vázquez who will have the final say in where the money goes. The funds will be overseen by a former banker named Robert Couch, appointed by the Trump administration, and a team of 10 to 15 people newly dedicated to overseeing Puerto Rican recovery funds. Once a plan gets through the fossil fuel-friendly administration, it will also likely have to obtain approval from the junta.
To Massol Deyá, it’s an example of why the fight for energy independence is about more than just electricity. “We’re calling for a goal of energy independence for Puerto Rico as a means to start decolonizing island,” he said. Massol Deyá doesn’t see Casa Pueblo’s purpose as figuring out how to fix PREPA. But the natural gas infrastructure cannot be allowed to move forward, he says. “This is forever if they let them do this. This is a colony forever.”
Correction: February 13, 2020
A previous version of this article misspelled Mayagüez and incorrectly described Yabucoa as a northeastern municipality; it is located in Puerto Rico’s Southeast. The article has also been updated to clarify a statement from oversight board spokesperson Matthias Rieker.