In 2017, Hurricane Maria showed the residents of Puerto Rico—and the people of the world—just how fragile the archipelago’s energy system was. The blackout that hit the region went down as the second-longest ever. We’re talking about months without electricity. Summer humidity without air conditioning. Cooking without refrigeration. The elderly without their medicine.
Many across Puerto Rico vowed that Hurricane Maria would mark the end of their reliance on the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) for their energy. Rooftop solar was their way out. A year after the hurricane, rooftop solar nearly doubled in Puerto Rico, according to Bloomberg. The future of the entire archipelago becoming a solar hub is on the line with this election. That’s true at the federal level with whoever becomes president—but especially so at the local level with Puerto Rico’s governor race.
“The capacity to start making the connections and the actions that we need to transform the energy service in Puerto Rico, it has to happen now,” Federico Cintrón-Moscoso, the director of the Puerto Rican office of El Puente, tells me. “We can’t wait for another election. That’s the case for the entire world and other countries, but it’s also the case for Puerto Rico.”
Welcome to The Frontline, where clean energy is on the ballot. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. In the latest iteration of this newsletter’s political content, we’re shedding light on a race not enough of us are talking about: the next governor of Puerto Rico.
In 2019, a political revolution across Puerto Rico pushed out then Gov. Ricardo Roselló. People did this by hitting the streets, rallying, protesting, demanding. This included Puerto Rican celebrities like my husband Bad Bunny and Ricky Martin, a Latinx icon. Since then, Puerto Ricans haven’t yet had a chance to vote for a new governor—until now.
As of Wednesday, no candidate has formally won the election, but pro-statehood candidate Pedro Pierluisi holds a slight lead over Popular Democratic Party candidate Carlos Delgado Altieri. The two are head to head with 32 percent and 31 percent of the votes. Pierluisi used to be a coal lobbyist. He has expressed support over a controversial energy contract between PREPA and LUMA Energy, a new company Canadian and American corporations formed for the sole purpose of operating Puerto Rico’s energy system. Delgado Altieri, on the other hand, had said he would cancel the contract, which is something advocates on the island want to see happen.
“Very concerned that if Pierluisi wins, he’ll continue to favor AES [a coal company] and [the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico] since he was affiliated with both prior to the election,” says Ruth Santiago, a Puerto Rico-based lawyer working with a number of environmental groups across the archipelago.
Right now, the race is too close to call, but a recount would follow if results show less than half a percentage point difference between the two candidates, reports Bloomberg. Regardless of who wins, this election has made clear that the island’s two major parties have lost the people’s trust. This is the first time in modern history that neither major party garnered more than 40 percent of votes, per ABC News.
The next governor of the U.S. territory wields a lot of power in how the island’s energy system evolves. In September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded Puerto Rico almost $13 billion, one of its largest awards to date. Sounds great, but advocates are concerned about how this money will be spent.
You see, the federal government announcement didn’t specify that the money had to go toward a more climate-resilient grid. Instead, FEMA’s directions include rebuilding the current system and replacing transmission and distribution lines. That’s the opposite of what local leaders want to see.
“We can’t wait for another election. That’s the case for the entire world and other countries, but it’s also the case for Puerto Rico.”
Santiago tells me leaders should’ve used this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to bring energy closer to users through rooftop or on-site solar. “Rather than do that, they’re proposing to rebuild, supposedly harden the current design,” she says. “Very problematic.”
Community advocates know exactly what they want. They want the sun. In 2018, an alliance of organizations outlined their specific desires in a proposal called Queremos Sol, or We Want Sun. The proposal includes building out renewable energy and improving energy efficiency across the island—with a focus on rooftop solar, battery storage, and fossil fuel elimination. The plan also centers local economic development by ensuring Puerto Ricans get trained and paid to do this work so that they benefit, instead of some outside corporation.
“That’s what we’re pushing,” Cintrón-Moscoso says. “To do this transition from a just transition perspective that is not only to bring renewables but to bring it in a way that we take care of the most vulnerable and our frontline communities.”
More than two years have passed since then, and the proposal’s authors are still waiting to see it happen. Roselló did sign the Puerto Rico Energy Policy Act less than a year later, which set a goal for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. However, little has changed to bring Puerto Rico any closer to meeting that. In fact, PREPA’s status report in September on its energy plans offers little hope.
As a result of this inaction, local environmental groups held a forum on Oct. 7 with five out of the six gubernatorial candidates about their Queremos Sol proposal. Two wound up committing to the proposal—but not Pierluisi or Delgado Altieri. Groups also filed a motion on Oct. 20 with the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, the governing body with the power to enforce the Puerto Rico Energy Policy Act. They argue that the current plans would delay Puerto Rico’s transition to clean energy. And they’re demanding that the bureau reject PREPA’s latest draft plan.
“When you have to be so alone without electricity and without water, it gets really bad. I’m not sure if what we went through really was understood outside.”
They can’t expect much support from Pierluisi should he take the governorship. Delgado Altieri offers a little more hope, but both parties have a history of not following through on promises. The only ones the people can rely on are themselves. People like Nelson Cardona Martínez, the director of the Center for Sustainable Water, Energy, and Food Nexus at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez. Not only did he protest by taking to the streets to help oust Roselló; he also installed a solar voltaic system on his home in 2018. He wasn’t the only one, either. So did his parents, his brother, his best friend, and two of his nephews.
“We haven’t paid a single cent to the power authority since then, and I am extremely happy about that,” he tells me. “There’s a bunch of people slowly going that route because what we get from the government is incredibly bad, and when you have to be so alone without electricity and without water, it gets really bad. I’m not sure if what we went through really was understood outside.”
Part of his research involves talking to community members about what they need to recover from Hurricane Maria. Everyone’s needs vary. What’s true for many, however, is the need for change. Part of that involves decentralizing the energy grid.
Energy shouldn’t have to travel miles to power their homes. Their electricity shouldn’t be so dirty that it increases the likeliness of monster storms like Hurricane Maria by polluting carbon into the atmosphere and spewing toxins into the natural environment.
Tuesday’s election has made this road unclear, but it’s not the end. The governor is but one player in this machine of societal change. There are also mayors, and there are even private partners. Most importantly, there’s the power of community.
“The way I see it, the transformation to renewables is gonna happen. What we want is for it to happen soon enough instead of too late,” Cintrón-Moscoso says. “There’s a bunch of things that we can start doing without waiting for the government. In Puerto Rico, that’s what we know. We know to do our things and not wait for the government to do it for us.”