Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria: Looking to Renewable Energy Sources

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After taking a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s second largest solar farm is still being put back together. More than six weeks later, thousands of solar panels are still scattered across a field next to the freeway. This solar farm provided about 40% of the island’s renewable energy.

Images show miles and miles of damaged power poles, and 46 days after the storm, Puerto Rico’s utility company is reporting only 40% power generation.

Consuelo Burgos and her husband, Luis, have had no electricity since Maria hit the island. They also lost power during Hurricane Irma a few weeks earlier. They rely on their son and good Samaritans to provide water and other necessary supplies. But like many other Puerto Ricans, they continue to insist it could have been much worse.

“Others have lost everything. We were the lucky ones. We’ll survive,” the Burgos’ say.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has set an ambitious goal to restore power to 95% of the island by December 15. Luis Burgos and many other citizens are skeptical that it will happen.

The mass skepticism stems from the island’s financial situation. In July, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority declared bankruptcy under a $9 billion debt. The publicly funded utility had a long history of corruption allegations and maintenance issues.

But several weeks ago El Hospital del Niño de Puerto Rico had a pleasant surprise when they received a call from a tech giant with an idea.

The children’s hospital, which houses 35 children with disabilities like cerebral palsy, is administered by Juliana Canino Rivera. In the days following the storm, the hospital struggled to find fuel for the generators to restore power.

As they struggled to keep the backup generators running, Tesla, who had been talking with Rosselló about bringing more solar technology to Puerto Rico, called and said they wanted to make a donation to the hospital — quickly.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Canino said. “When I saw them, I was amazed.”

In just a short eight days, Tesla had more than 700 solar panels up and running in the hospital’s parking lot. Elon Musk, the company’s founder, called it “the first of many solar + battery projects going live” on the island.

While 48% of homebuyers are interested in having “energy-efficiency” as their most desired feature in a new home, reinventing life in Puerto Rico by going solar won’t be easy.

Along with the island’s dire financial situation, there is also a sharp opposition to privatizing the electric grid. Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, president of UTIER, the electrical and irrigation workers’ union, said that solar technology would be difficult to implement on a wide scale.

Although according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the island’s residents use much less energy than is used by residents in the 50 states. Statistics show that in 2016, 47% of Puerto Rico’s electricity came from petroleum, 34% from natural gas, 17% from coal, and 2% from renewable energy.

The utility currently spends over $1 billion every year on fuel to oil and gas companies located off the island. Because of this, renewables could help the economy recover more quickly for the bankrupt utility and local government.

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