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In the wake of hurricane destruction, Biden is supporting Puerto Rico’s clean energy transition

The Hill logo The Hill 1/27/2023 Ramón Luis Nieves, opinion contributor
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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently released a report which includes key recommendations for the transformation of Puerto Rico’s electric grid. The report is the first annual deliverable of an initiative called PR100: Puerto Rico Grid Resilience and Transitions to 100% Renewable Energy Study. PR100 is a two-year study by DOE’s Grid Deployment Office and six national laboratories, tasked with analyzing “stakeholder-driven pathways to Puerto Rico’s clean energy future.”

The Biden administration has shown a clear commitment to address the energy challenges of the island. President Joe Biden visited Puerto Rico in October 2022, during the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. Biden asked Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm to put together a Puerto Rican Grid Recovery and Modernization Team. Several days later, Granholm visited the island. She returned to the island shortly thereafter, and announced the appointment of Agustín Carbó Lugo as director of the initiative. Granholm is also set to return to the island in early 2023.

On November 2022, Biden asked Congress to provide $3 billion for “for grants to low income households in Puerto Rico to purchase and install solar and battery storage systems and energy distribution technology”. On December 2022, Congress appropriated a lower, but still significant amount — $ 1 billion — to “increase the resilience of Puerto Rico’s electric grid and assist low and moderate income households and households that include individuals with disabilities in purchasing and installing renewable energy, energy storage, and other grid technologies.” The Biden administration’s commitment to advancing renewable energy goals in Puerto Rico is evident.

So, how far is Puerto Rico from meeting its renewable energy goals? Very, very far.

The U.S. territory amended its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) in 2019. Act No. 17-2019, the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act, states new goals for the RPS: 20 percent renewables by 2022, 40 percent by 2025, 60 percent by 2040 and 100 percent by 2050. As of September 2022, Puerto Rico was among 22 states, Guam and Washington, D.C., who had committed to achieve either 100 percent renewable goals or carbon-free electricity by 2050.

Puerto Rico is yet to comply with its initial RPS goals. As of 2022, renewable power represented merely 3 to 4 percent of this U.S. territory’s energy mix, very far from the 20 percent goal prescribed by law.

The recent PR100 report includes several important findings. First, the report concludes that “the renewable technical resource in Puerto Rico significantly exceeds the current and projected total annual loads through 2050.” Second, the report states that “if only utility-scale solar and land-based wind resources were deployed, Puerto Rico could not meet its

renewable capacity targets given the amount of land available when agricultural land is excluded.”

These findings clearly support the development of rooftop solar and storage, while providing limited support for utility-scale projects. The models suggested by PR100 for utility-scale projects exclude agricultural lands. It is important to consider that the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (PREB) — the Island’s independent regulator — has already approved utility-scale projects for renewable energy resource capacity and storage.

The report also recognizes the potential of developing virtual power plants (VPP’s). In fact, PREPA reached agreement with the solar company Sunrun to develop the Island’s first ever VPP, which will initially connect 7,000 homes. Sunrun’s CEO Mary Powell described the VPP as a model whereby “solar energy is generated on rooftops and stored in batteries to power each home, and then shared with neighbors.”

In future reports, PR100 should address clean energy justice considerations. First and foremost, the inequitable access to renewable energy in Puerto Rico. Financial incentives and mechanisms must be proposed in order for low- to moderate-income families and communities to benefit from renewable power. Perhaps it is time for the government of Puerto Rico and the DOE to agree on assigning the recent $1 billion appropriation to the Green Energy Trust organized under Act No. 17-2019.

Finally, PR100 could benefit from engaging stakeholders who, with the support of the non-profit sector, developed community-controlled microgrids and electric cooperatives since 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

Ramón Luis Nieves is a former state senator for the District of San Juan, Puerto Rico and chairman of the Energy committee of the Senate of Puerto Rico. Currently, Nieves is the managing member of RL Legal & Consulting Services, LLC, based in San Juan. Follow him on Twitter: @ramonluisnieves

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