Solar Power Offers Puerto Ricans a Lifeline but Remains an Elusive Goal

As Puerto Rico reeled from its worst power outage in months, one that left virtually all of the island’s 1.5 million customers without electricity for days, the town of Adjuntas was an oasis.

On a Thursday morning in early April, with school closed, children filled seats in an air-conditioned cinema at a community center, a pizzeria prepped its kitchen for the lunch rush, and the local barbershop welcomed customers looking for a quick trim.

The contrast shows why Adjuntas, a community of about 18,000 in central Puerto Rico’s densely forested mountains, has become a showcase for how solar power could address one of the island’s most vexing problems — an energy grid that has struggled to recover after Hurricane María practically wiped it out in 2017.

Thanks largely to the work of Casa Pueblo, a nonprofit that works for conservation, about 400 homes and businesses in Adjuntas have solar power, including more than a dozen shops that are connected to a small network powered by the sun. With backup batteries, the systems can operate even in a blackout, keeping businesses open and turning the organization’s headquarters into a refuge for people who use medical devices that need to be powered.

“When you have energy security, you’re taking the weight off the shoulders of the employees as well as the families that come to the business,” said Ángel Irizarry Feliciano, owner of Lucy’s Pizza, which kept operating during the power outage. “It was a relief we could continue providing a service to our people without interruptions or having to reduce our hours.”

But the situation in Adjuntas also highlights how far the rest of Puerto Rico has to go on renewable energy, despite all the seemingly obvious reasons for it: the island’s long and sunny days; its need to import all other fuel, which makes electricity generation costly; and, of course, its constantly failing power grid.

Even though the number of solar installations has climbed in recent years, solar power accounts for just 2.5 percent of Puerto Rico’s total energy production, government data shows. The rest comes from plants fueled by imported natural gas, coal and petroleum, with another sliver from wind power.

Many Puerto Ricans can’t afford to spend the $27,000 a typical solar-power system might cost, and the government — which emerged from an unprecedented bankruptcy in March — began to set concrete renewable energy targets only in 2019. Some who can afford to add solar panels to their homes have been deterred by the chaotic state of Puerto Rico’s finances, in particular a proposal to levy a charge on solar customers to help shore up the public utility.

Casa Pueblo’s installations are paid for with money from foundations, both in Puerto Rico and abroad, and from sales of coffee grown in Adjuntas. Since Hurricane María, the organization has expanded its push for solar-power adoption to communities on other parts of the island.

“We need public policy to create a business model that focuses on helping you generate your own power, not just one that provides power,” said Arturo Massol Deyá, the associate director of Casa Pueblo. “The people are tired of constant power outages and their appliances getting ruined.”

After the most recent outage, which began on April 6 after a fire at a power plant in the southwestern town of Guayanilla, power wasn’t fully restored for four days. The islandwide shutdown set off a cascade of problems: Water was also shut off to many, hospitals had to turn to backup generators, and schools and businesses closed.

The outage touched off protests and calls for the government to cancel its contract with Luma Energy, the private power company that took over the utility last June with promises to restore the grid. The governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia, rejected the idea. But the constant power interruptions, along with monthly electric bills that have surged 46 percent in the past year, have increased frustration with the utility, which is run by a Canadian-American company under a 15-year contract signed last year.

“While some politicians choose to ignore the state of the power grid that Luma inherited and allocate blame without facts, we will continue to focus on the energy future of Puerto Rico,” Luma said in a statement to The New York Times.

Puerto Rico has ambitions to do more with renewable energy. In 2019, the government passed a clean energy law that requires that 100 percent of the island’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2050 and includes promises to use federal money to build renewable energy projects that reach low-income communities.

The board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances approved 18 renewable energy projects in March with a goal of raising clean energy production to 23 percent of the island’s total by the end of 2024. In February, the U.S. Energy Department began a two-year study of Puerto Rico’s clean energy options. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have allocated $12 billion to revamp the island’s energy industry.

Even as it proposed such an ambitious target for renewable energy, the oversight board raised the prospect of charging consumers who have solar panels on their homes by making them pay for the electricity they generate.

Under the proposal, which was made as a way to help pay $9 billion in debt owed by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, new solar customers would have had to pay for every kilowatt of solar energy they generated. Because the proposal also included a plan to increase rates for conventional power, it was scrapped in March by the governor. But solar power advocates say they worry that as negotiations continue for a new agreement, the charge — which some refer to as the solar tax — could be revived.

“We need to find a way to deal with the debt,” said Francisco Berrios Portela, director of the energy policy program at the Department of Economic Development and Commerce in Puerto Rico. “But it can’t be by adding a tax on the generation that’s produced by this type of system we’re promoting.”

The uncertainty about whether they’ll have to pay more fees for a solar-power system on a home or business has dissuaded consumers like María Lizardi Córdova, an accountant who lives in San Juan. Ms. Lizardi Córdova can see a neighbor’s solar panels from her bedroom window and knows many other people in the neighborhood who have decided to invest in solar, but she thinks it’s still too soon to make the transition herself.

“This isn’t the right time, and it has to do with all the uncertainty over any additional cost to solar and what my expenses would be,” Ms. Lizardi Córdova said. “The situation gets more complicated with the debt.”

For Puerto Ricans with medical needs, like refrigeration for insulin or power for dialysis machines, outages can be treacherous — and the benefits of a solar-powered backup system are overwhelming.

In Adjuntas, Casa Pueblo runs a special project that provides solar panels for people with medical needs, like Juan Molina Reyes, a farmer who grows plantains, coffee and oranges.

Mr. Molina Reyes’s 75-year-old father, Luis, suffered a stroke in August and needs assistance breathing. He says he ran through seven gas generators trying to keep his father’s oxygen concentrator running when the power grid went down.

That changed in February, when Mr. Molina Reyes’s family was given solar panels after seeking assistance from the charity. He said he felt lucky to have them.

“It was exasperating to know that if the system failed me at any moment, my father would pass,” Mr. Molina Reyes said. “It was an uphill battle.”

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