Queremos Sol: Seeking Solar Power for All Puerto Rican Homes — Episode 138 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 9 Sep 2021 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Residents of Puerto Rico are ready for energy democracy. Specifically, a resilient, renewable electricity system with equitably shared benefits. Is this vision possible for the island, whose democratic power is limited to begin with?

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with guest Ingrid Vila, environmental engineer and founder of non-profit Cambio. After Puerto Rico’s many catastrophic grid failures, Vila and Cambio have re envisioned the island’s energy future in a proposal called ‘Queremos Sol.’ Vila explains why rooftop solar should power every home in Puerto Rico, reducing residential electricity rates and covering basic needs during future crises.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Ingrid Vila: I think similar to other experiences that have sought to expand democratic rights and values, the road to energy democracy is really a battle ground. And it is tough because those who currently hold the power, political power, or in the energy sector corporate interest and fossil fuel interests, they just don’t want to let go. And obviously they don’t want to let go because they’re making good profits at the expense of environmental degradation, people’s health, communities wellbeing.
John Farrell: As New Orleans struggles without electricity in the wake of Hurricane Ida, the city’s residents might benefit from some lessons learned from Puerto Rico from hurricane Maria, which infamously knocked out power to the entire island in 2018. In the year since, island residents have firsthand experience with the perils of monopoly ownership and with privatization. They have also organized to envision a future in which most residents would be resilient in the face of extreme weather and grid outages. Ingrid Vila, environmental engineer, founder of Cambio, and one of the leaders of Queremos Sol – Spanish for we want sun – joined me in September, 2021 to talk about the visionary study showing how Puerto Rico could build a more resilient grid and lower energy costs by supplying 1 million homes with solar and energy storage. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.

Ingrid, welcome to the program.

Ingrid Vila: Thank you, John. And thank you for having me once again here. Very happy to put you up to date in terms of what’s happening in Puerto Rico in the energy sector.
John Farrell: So I ask this question of a lot of my guests and I failed to do so the first time you were on the program a couple of years ago, but I was just curious, what has motivated you to get involved in renewable energy work?
Ingrid Vila: Um, well, first of all, I am an environmental engineer, right? So energy is not like all that foreign to what I have been working on, although my specialty is in water, actually not in energy. But it was really after my experience in government and serving as chief of staff where I had the opportunity to try to move forward renewable energy as a focal point for energy transformation on the island and obviously facing big roadblocks to do so within government structures, that when I left the government and founded Cambio in 2015 and started working with communities in terms of advocating for more sustainable solutions and not only in the energy sector, but also regarding solid waste, water conservation, and things like that, that we started focusing more on. And I started focusing more on renewables and obviously after hurricane Maria in 2017, where energy became a central discussion point for the island, which actually most of the discussion in many of the issues discussed, actually got to, to news in the U.S. as well and the continental U.S. I think that’s, that’s a tipping point I think for myself in terms of really diving into energy and seeing it as an area that really needed additional support and additional attention in order to get the point across and in order to provide another avenue and provide alternatives as to how Puerto Rico’s energy grid could be transformed in a way that that is sustainable, that promotes equity, and that optimizes and maximizes our great renewable resource, which we have, which is the sun.
John Farrell: Probably just goes to show how poor I am at thinking about linkages to current events, but obviously this conversation could have a lot of meaning for people in Louisiana right now who are suffering from a similar, if not as long a duration, outage from Hurricane Ida right now. And so I’m just very excited that this is so timely in terms of the conversation about how we can design energy grids differently to be more resilient and equitable. So let’s talk about Cambio really quickly. So you founded it in 2015. Can you tell me a little bit more about, tell our listeners a little bit more about what, what is Cambio and, and what, uh, how is it trying to be involved in the energy discussion that’s happening in Puerto Rico? And if you’re willing to try to summarize the very many things that are happening in Puerto Rico, maybe we can just get a, kind of an overview of where things stand since Hurricane Maria. The grid is now operating again, but we have, as I understand it, lots of different conversations, not only about the kind of energy that will be generated on the electricity system, but who will own it.
Ingrid Vila: Definitely. So, so Cambio, um, like you mentioned, and I mentioned before, we founded it in 2015, it’s a nonprofit organization based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with the purpose of building a more equitable society with greater opportunities. That was kind of our motivation and building capacity within society and ensuring that, that we have even better resources that what we have today. And we concentrate our efforts on research, design, promotion, and moving to implementation as well, of sustainable and responsible policies and studied. And our work platform addresses issues obviously relating to energy, but also solid waste, water resources, climate change, obviously, environmental justice, protection and governance and fiscal matters as well. And that’s probably, it could be a theme of another podcast regarding the issue of, and the impact the fiscal oversight board has over the energy sector in Puerto Rico, and we develop our work and it has been kind of like a staple on how we move forward with projects and ideas. And we do so with the active participation and in partnership with community groups, environmental groups, labor groups, academia, as well as affected, uh, citizens, communities, and stakeholders. I’ve said before and I tried to define Cambio kind of like an actionable think tank because we do develop policy and ideas, but we try to also move into implementation, not just present solutions, but we try to actually implement and move forward with them for the benefit of communities. And kind of like focusing more on energy, well, Puerto Rico’s energy present and future is, is obviously highly contested. And, and the reason we have been focusing so much on energy, like I mentioned, after hurricane Maria, it was definitely the thing to do.

The devastation caused by both hurricanes Irma and Maria was of catastrophic levels. And the impact those events had on our grid were incredibly severe and exposed the vulnerability of our current electrical system. And unfortunately, even though I think it was recognized by the vast majority of the population that the current system, we couldn’t go back to that, we couldn’t just rebuild that because it obviously was not working adequately given the current challenges and realities of climate change. And, and obviously the opportunities that Puerto Rico has at the same time in terms of renewables and the high cost of electricity on the island dependent on fossil fuels, I think the wide majority of the population recognized that we couldn’t go back to that. Yet the government’s position at that point in 2018 was to say that we would transform the grid by privatizing it, and by trying to develop a new energy policy. And obviously when, when they addressed and they presented that they wanted to bring forward a new energy policy, we thought, well, yes, we do need any energy policy. We can’t go back to the same thing. But unfortunately, that energy policy, even though it does recognize an established RPS, renewable portfolio standards that were higher than Puerto Rico has had in the past and establishes obtaining a hundred percent renewable energy by 2050, it also includes some requisites and requirements for all current fossil fuel generation facilities to be able to operate on dual fuel. And that obviously opens the door and has opened the door to natural gas investments and moving towards natural gas and not necessarily investing on renewable energy. And in 2018, seeing all those things moving forward, right, and all those intents and interest from government to privatize on the one hand, and then to kind of like have a general commitment towards renewable, but really pinpointing on, on fossil fuel investments as their short term and medium term interests.

Well, we sat down with various collaborators and community groups, and we came together with Queremos Sol and in the summer of 2018, we, we developed and later presented that fall, Queremos Sol as an alternative to transform Puerto Rico’s energy grid via rooftop solar and behind the meter storage. And to be able to attain, not only a hundred percent renewable energy by 2050, but 50% renewable as well by 2035. And since then we have been promoting Queremos Sol as the alternative. Um, and we have done so both by conducting massive education campaigns, presentations at the community level, obviously active participation at the regulatory level as well with the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, just a recent creation. It’s pretty new. We have a young regulator, if you want to put it that way. And we have been also presenting Queremos Sol as an alternative at the community level and moving forward also with larger scale projects. We are actually in the process right now through Cambio, in partnership with Solar United Neighbors, a community and neighborhood collective solar installation program, where 20 homes in a community in San Juan are getting rooftop solar installed. And we did so through a collective process in order to lower, obviously, rates and make it more affordable for people to adopt this type of technology.

But at the same time, we also knew that we couldn’t just leave Queremos Sol as a proposal, that we needed to ground it on more technical aspects. And we needed to, to be able to present that Queremos Sol the same way that the Puerto Rico Energy Power authority was presenting its IRP. And we decided to then move into developing modeling for what Queremos Sol would look like, and this past March, we actually presented the results of that modeling study which we conducted in 2020. And, and obviously the results were actually more promising than what we initially thought they would be. And I say that because like I mentioned, Queremos Sol establishes that by 2035 Puerto Rico could attain 50% renewable energy integration through rooftop solar. And this study demonstrates that we can actually attain 75% by 2035. And not only that we can attain it, but that it is feasible, that it would reduce vulnerabilities, um, in terms of ensuring continuous service in case of grid interruption, and that it would provide resiliency to a hundred percent of homes by 2035, which I think it’s, it’s one of the greatest results from that study is, is being able to demonstrate that Puerto Rico’s resiliency and individual home and community level resiliency could be quite different if money were put and focus were put on transforming the grid via renewable energy.

John Farrell: So I just have to laugh a little bit. Cause I remember when I had the distinct honor to come to Puerto Rico to meet with you and many other activists for a conference, I remember that in the conference building on the same day we were meeting and talking about this future of the grid, the governor was at a meeting of folks to talk about natural gas infrastructure. So as you mentioned, that dual fuel idea for the power plant and infrastructure for the fossil fuels. So you really do have this tension between what a lot of residents want to see in terms of a clean energy future that would be more resilient and this sort of, uh, government level and policy level, policy maker level conversation that seems really, uh, stuck on fossil fuels. So I think the study that you did is remarkable. So if I remember correctly, the study is called the Distributed Energy Resource Integration Study, is that right?
Ingrid Vila: Yes. Correct.
John Farrell: And, and I, and I, I was hoping that you could just talk a little bit more, especially in light of, what’s been just, you know, happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Ida. You know, they’ve got an outage now for most of, uh, one of a major U.S. city that has been hit by another hurricane in the not so distant past. And here they are similarly, uh, stuck where, you know, there were eight big transmission lines serving that city that all failed leaving the city largely without power and for quite a bit longer than we typically have in the main land, which is, you know, they say it could be weeks and weeks. So talk more about what this resilient future could look like. And what did the study find out, like how much solar are we talking about? You know, how many homes would have solar? I ask this in part because ILSR has also been working on this campaign for 30 Million Solar Homes, looking at federal policy and how it could support both in states and, and U.S. territories and more distributed solar. So it seems like there could be a really, there’s some harmony between these two ideas and you’ve really gotten into the details about what it could mean for Puerto Rico in the study.
Ingrid Vila: Yes. And even though obviously the study was conducted in Puerto Rico and about Puerto Rico, we do believe that it is applicable and it has important lessons for communities in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as other small island nations. And what we were, just to give a bit of background, right? When we were trying to model, what we model was, uh, different degrees of renewable penetration, and to see how the Puerto Rico grid would behave and what type of investments would be needed, at the grid level, both at transmission and distribution level. And we did. So I established doing three scenarios. So scenario of 25% renewable integration, a second scenario 50% renewable integration, and a third scenario of 75% renewable integration. And each of those have also varying percentages in terms of resilient homes, where at the 75% renewable integration, you have a hundred percent of homes. And when, I mean, a hundred percent of homes, we’re talking about a million homes with rooftop solar, and we chose an average of about 2.7 kilowatts of PV systems with 12.6 kilowatt hours of batteries, as an average. There are homes that could have more, homes that could have a bit less, but with that amount of energy produced via rooftop solar, and with distributed PV also in batteries at commercial installations, taking advantage of parking lots and their own rooftops, we’re able to provide 75% of required demand. You’re able to supply that demand via renewables, which is something very important. What the study demonstrates is that it is feasible that the grid would operate adequately, that service interruptions, if they were to happen because of grid malfunctions and things like that, would, would have a lower effect on, obviously, and impact, on individuals and communities, because you would still have your PV system on your rooftop.

And that is what, when we talk about resiliency, and when we talk about lowering vulnerability, remember that we’re basing that on our experience from Hurricane Maria, where we were all disconnected from the grid. Where, except those who had already installed PV systems with storage, everyone else, or if you had obviously a diesel generator, everyone else was disconnected from the grid and that not only had an impact in terms of our economy, but it costs lives. I mean, we’re talking about in Hurricane Maria, over 3,000 people died. And one of the main reasons that has been attributed to those, to the loss of lives has been the lack of energy and the lack of power. So it was very important for Queremos Sol to, to put obviously, humanity – we’re not just talking about infrastructure and, and cables and things like that. We’re talking about something that is essential for human lives.

So in, in the signing Queremos Sol that way. And in presenting this modeling report and this modeling study, we wanted to ensure that if there were grid interruptions, that people would have service for their basic needs and with those 2.7 kilowatt PV systems and batteries, you’re able to turn on your refrigerator, you’re able to turn on your fans, you’re able to charge your telephones. So you’re able to keep functioning. You won’t be able with a 2.7 kilowatt system to turn on your air conditioning, if there’s no grid, right? But the issue is to be able to, to minimize exposure to hazardous conditions, and obviously to be able to provide electrical service in emergency situations, but at the same time in normal conditions, the aggregate of all these systems installed on rooftops can provide overall resiliency to the island. And it does so in a way that allows for the grid to operate adequately. It reduces dependency on these long transmission lines, which were obviously the most vulnerable point from our grid system. And it obviously reduces dependency on centralized fossil fuel. And the report even provides a schedule. We were able to even schedule what the phase out of fossil fuel generation could look like, obviously taking out and phasing out first the most polluting ones, the oldest generation fleet, but it also demonstrates that there is no need for new natural gas investments that with the fleet that Puerto Rico has right now, it can do and perform an adequate transition towards renewables. So, so we’re kind of, the report demonstrates that precisely what government is doing is the wrong path to be able to achieve a high penetration of renewable energy and at the same time to reduce vulnerabilities for the population. And obviously there are also important results that are associated with this type of transformation in terms of lowering carbon emissions.

We’re talking about a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions at the 75% level. We’re talking about stability in the rates because you will be reducing your dependency on fossil fuel purchases and obviously augmenting your dependency on renewable energy and a solar source. So I mean, everybody who has seen the report and, and obviously does so in an objective way that has no like fossil fuel interests or other interests, looks at this and say, so why is it not happening? Why is this not moving forward in Puerto Rico? And that’s where we get, I guess, into the tensions right. Of, of, of the status quo versus what a transition would look like and what is required to get to that transition.

John Farrell: Let’s hold that thought about the political future for just a second. I just want to emphasize what the impact of that 75% scenario and the resiliency… You talk about a million homes with solar and battery storage. And just to put that in context, the entire island of Puerto Rico has about 1.2 million households. So we’re really talking about, as you say, almost universal resiliency for the population of Puerto Rico. And just to think about how different that might be. You know, there’s probably at least a million people in the New Orleans area that are currently without electricity because of the failure of the centralized grid system. Obviously everybody on the island of Puerto Rico was without power, except for those who were very wealthy or have their own backup systems. But even those, like, diesel generators obviously were vulnerable to you know, fuel shortages given the length of, of the power outage. So this is really transformative to be able to allow so many homes to be resilient in the face of natural disasters or grid malfunctions, as you said. I just think that’s astonishing. And so I just really admire the fact that you were so focused on the human impact, and we’ll definitely have a link to the study on the show page so that folks can see more about it. I was just curious, you already talked about like the carbon emission reductions, the fact that this could be more stability in energy rates, because you’re not going to have to be buying fossil fuels, importing fossil fuels in order to supply the power plants. Did you also model things like jobs or, or other things like that in terms of what this might mean for residents of Puerto Rico? Obviously that’s a lot of solar to get installed in the coming decades.
Ingrid Vila: Well, I mean the, the modeling study, uh, didn’t get into the, the overall economic impact, but obviously we know that that would be incredibly positive, right? Because if we’re talking about getting a million homes to have PV systems by 2035, we would have to be completing about 50,000 installations per year. So that is a huge amount of activity in terms of solar installation. Obviously there has been an increase in the past years in Puerto Rico in terms of that industry. And I think it would definitely provide an additional injection of economic activity to that sector.
John Farrell: I should have done my homework here before this, because we did some model economic impact modeling for the 30 million solar homes campaign. And we did do jobs and carbon emissions, and we included U.S. territories as well as states. I actually just pulled it up here really quick.
Ingrid Vila: Oh, I haven’t seen that. So if you could share that would be great.
John Farrell: Yeah, I will definitely do so, but the, in our impact report, which we just released a few weeks ago, we were talking about solar in about one in four homes, uh, across all of the different states and territories. And we found that it would create about 45,000 jobs for Puerto Ricans to do that level of solar, which is obviously only about a third of what you’re talking about in that 75% scenario. So, and as people have asked, yes, everything sort of scales linearly in our analysis. So, you know, you can expect well over a hundred thousand jobs, it seems to me, in terms of the job impact and potentially a significant energy bill savings as well, because presumably the folks who have the solar installed on their homes would also have to buy less electricity from the centralized utility as well. Which seems to be another opportunity in terms of resiliency is to helping people afford their energy bills.
Ingrid Vila: Well, in terms of affordability. And that’s a very important aspect that is also addressed in our study because obviously in order to be able to get to those levels, it requires huge capital investments, right? But Puerto Rico has a unique opportunity right now. And precisely because of the funds assigned for the reconstruction post hurricanes and Puerto Rico has been assigned over $14 billion in federal funds for the energy sector. And in the study, we analyze the impact of using a portion of those funds would have in this project and how it would make it viable, what it would look like in the end. And if we were to use $9.6 billion of those 14 billion dollars assigned, we would get a hundred percent of those homes with PV systems and rates, would lower to below 15 cents per kilowatt hour. And obviously also to provide context, rates in Puerto Rico right now they’re over 21 cents per kilowatt hour. So we’re talking about an important reduction in rates and a stabilization of those rates. So what we’re proposing is that federal funds be used for this massive deployment of PV systems, so that no one is left behind because just like you were mentioning, right? Hurricane Maria, those who were able to have some sort of backup is because they had funds. They had, obviously they have the capability to either have a PV system and acquire it, or have a power generator. But obviously the most vulnerable ones were the ones who were more, most exposed and suffered the most. And we do not want that to continue to happen. So by using federal funds for this massive deployment would be sure that everybody and no one, everybody is able to access the PV system and obviously derive the benefits of having a PV system and expelled in their homes. No one will be left behind.
John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. We come back, we discuss the implications of the privatization of Puerto Rico’s electricity grid, the opportunities for Queremos Sol to advance a vision of distributed energy, and the lessons learned and opportunities for mainland residents to help energy democracy in Puerto Rico. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules interview with Ingrid Vila, environmental engineer, founder of Cambio and leader in the Queremos Sol movement for more clean, distributed energy in Puerto Rico.

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John Farrell: I just love the vision here that this provides, and I wish that I could spend a lot more time going into the wonky details of the report, but I’ll leave that for folks to read and for myself to read in greater detail. I want to address the sort of political elephant in the room and that you’ve kind of already alluded to about this issue of privatization — Well, let me back up for just a second. So for people who don’t know the utility PREPA, the power authority on Puerto Rico has been a public utility for a long time, but managed in a way that has obviously not lived up to the expectations that people would have for resilient and affordable and even well run electric grid. Unfortunately. So obviously people were looking for a different way to approach this after Hurricane Maria exposed those vulnerabilities, and there is a drive to privatize the utility. And I’m just curious in the work that you’re doing with Cambio and Queremos Sol, what is the, what does that potential impact of privatization? What would it mean for equity for who’s able to capture this economic opportunity? What would it mean for the, the outcomes that you’ve modeled in this study in terms of being able to do widespread distributed solar, to support resiliency and affordability for residents in Puerto Rico?
Ingrid Vila: Well, unfortunately the, the results of the current privatization scheme, which is, uh, Puerto Rico has just entered into a 15 year contract for the operation, maintenance, and management of its transmission and distribution system. And thus far what it has demonstrated, not just in the implementation phase, which started June first, the contract came into effect June 1st of this year, but also in analyzing the contract is that renewables is not a focus of this new contract arrangement and this arrangement to, to manage the T and D system. And that is a huge problem because obviously when we were talking about deployment at the rooftop level, we’re talking about the deployment at the distribution level. So this is within the realm of action. And we already have approached the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau with participation from LUMA regarding the importance of LUMA getting involved in this massive deployment and using federal funds for this massive deployment. And the response we have gotten… And it’s written, it’s not something that we heard through the grapevines. They responded that they were not interested in getting involved in this. So they’re here pretty much to continue to administer the status quo, which is one of the great contract deficiencies. This is a contract that pretty much just took the failed public monopoly and passed it on to a private hand, but there’s no transformation. There’s no requirement for, uh, improvements that will really lead to renewable energy future to a sustainable energy future or to a more equitable energy future. So we’re in front of a very expensive transaction for Puerto Rico, which costs about, uh, over $124 million a year just in operating fees. Um, something that that utility doesn’t even have and has been even recognized by the fiscal oversight and management board, and that it will get paid only through supposed efficiencies that this new entity, which is a company called LUMA, which is a consortium between ATPCO, which is a Canadian entity and Quanta Services, which is based out of Texas. And they created that new corporation in Puerto Rico called LUMA to administer the T&D.

And yet we don’t have the funds to pay for this transaction, that transaction does not have any sort of metrics or requirements that will lead to a sustainable transformation of the grid. And we already know, because they have already said so, that they’re not interested in deploying rooftop solar or DER. So we have now, uh, an entity who I think puts Puerto Rico in an even worse position than we were before in terms of being able to transform the grid or to get renewables to be adopted as the alternative generation of the future and the present. And just in past days, the Governor of Puerto Rico re-iterated his interest in moving forward now with the privatization of the generation fleet. And that is even more problematic if you asked me, because we’re talking about then the sale or lease of these huge fossil fuel-based generation facilities, which whoever comes in to participate in that proposal process and that public-private partnership, if they’re going to be putting monies into those fleets, they will want to use them for at least a couple of decades. So that will definitely lock in our dependency on fossil fuels and will inhibit our possibilities to integrate renewables in a way that puts us in a path to achieve even the objectives that are set by law.

John Farrell: What do you see as the opportunities to intervene, to change the direction? You know, you mentioned Puerto Rico Energy Bureau as this fairly new regulator. I remember even a couple of years ago that they were already offering what I thought was some very helpful critique of the public utility’s resource planning, basically pointing out the many flaws that there were in that system is, and we have seen in other U.S. states regulators coming around and saying to utilities that have plans for fossil fuel generation, that if it’s going to be more costly for customers than alternatives, that they won’t allow that. And so we’ve seen a lot of them negotiated closures of fossil fuel power plants, whether it’s in Colorado or New Mexico or Minnesota, a lot of different states. Is there an opportunity there with the regulator? Is there an opportunity through the legislature? I feel like Puerto Rico is obviously in this very unique position though, because you have this federal fiscal oversight board that has removed some of your local self-determination, some of your local control over the system. And that makes this even more complicated than, than we’re at, just in a U.S. state where you’re dealing with a utility that’s performing poorly.
Ingrid Vila: Definitely right? The fiscal board, it makes everything even more complicated because it removes our capacity to be able to influence and to be able to participate in local decisions. They are pretty much inoculated from any type of public pressure. They do not respond to the people of Puerto Rico. They do not respond to the governor. They do not respond to the Puerto Rican legislature. They supposedly respond to Congress, but Congress, obviously Puerto Rico is not a very high priority within congressional agenda. So the fiscal oversight board is pretty much on its own, doing whatever they think they want to do. And the determinations they have made thus far have really demonstrated that the best interest of the people of Puerto Rico, it’s not really their top priority. So aside from that, in terms of what opportunities we do have, definitely the regulator of the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, we do actively participate there. And that is one of the reasons why we decided to pursue the modeling study to be able to provide them with more information, because they were only getting information from one side, from PREPA. And we were participating as interveners in the IRP and in other proceedings, but the playing field was not level. And we feel now with this modeling study that we are providing evidence that speaks in the same language, that first language that they understand and the same language that PREPA and now LUMA is speaking to them.

The legislature is also an important party here. Um, and they have actually been conducting investigations into the LUMA transaction, because the LUMA transaction not only represents all the problems that I already described, but it, it is questionable the way that contract came about and how LUMA got selected. Um, unfortunately the process by which that privatization was developed is through a process that is absolutely confidential. So the people of Puerto Rico, we did not have access to any documentation. We didn’t know who was participating in the procurement process. We at Cambio actually did our request for documents and it was denied. And they said that they could not provide, and that law protected them from providing any documents until the entire process was consummated. And we have been doing actually a forensic analysis on the documents that we have obtained. And what it has demonstrated is that there was no rigor in, in this process that, uh, there were a lot of conflicts of interests in the committees and in the decision-making process. And as recently as yesterday, actually, the Queremos Sol coalition put out a press release, denouncing that the fiscal oversight and management board is now recognizing that they actually did not evaluate properly the impact of the LUMA contract on the government of Puerto Rico budget or on PREPA’s pension system.

So we’re talking about something that was just pushed forward as a solution, kind of like as a way to, to get attention off from the Maria crisis and the energy sector crisis in 2018. And that was just pushed forward, kind of like as the solution to all. And we’re seeing that it is really not the solution and not only is it not the solution, it is really a problem. And one of the biggest problems that we’re facing right now with this LUMA contract is due to the fact that LUMA decided to not recognize the labor unions that have been working at PREPA. So they, they did not hire most of PREPA employees. So PREPA employees were displaced to other government agencies, over 3000 employees were displaced to other government agencies to them, things that have nothing to do with energy. And now LUMA was left to hire people who have limited knowledge on the grid. And what we have faced in Puerto Rico for the past three months has been just as if a hurricane  had gone by come June 1st and it’s frequent interruptions. And prolonged interruptions, lack of information, there is no transparency, voltage fluctuations are common. They even, because of voltage  fluctuations, even houses that been set on fire. I mean, just like the worst scenario that you can think of all coming together as of June 1st and these past three months due to this very ill conceived contract.

John Farrell: Wow. I am sorry that you and your colleagues are having to go through this fight. I feel like there’s a couple of things I’d like to wrap up with. One is in going through this and then doing this modeling study, I feel like you may have some lessons learned that would be helpful for folks on the mainland U.S. to think about sort of lessons from fellow citizens in Puerto Rico about energy democracy. And I’m curious if you have things from your experience over the past few years that you think are worth sharing, and that folks outside of Puerto Rico could be thinking about in terms of how the grid operates, who has power over the system, et cetera, that that would be important for us to understand. And then the second question is what is it that folks who care about climate change and renewable energy and energy democracy, and who, you know, work primarily on the mainland U.S., what can they do about what’s happening in Puerto Rico? Is there a way that they can be helpful in advocating for solutions like Cambio and Queremos Sol have put together?
Ingrid Vila: Well, addressing your first question regarding energy democracy? I think similar to other experiences that, that have sought to expand democratic rights and values, the road to energy democracy is really a battle ground. And it is tough because those who currently hold the power, be it political power, or in the energy sector, corporate interest and fossil fuel interests, they just don’t want to let go. And obviously they don’t want to let go because they’re making good profits at the expense of environmental degradation, people’s health community’s wellbeing. So, so energy democracy, I mean means taking all that power, right, and that wealth and, and that is currently like filling corporate bank accounts, and redistributing among a wider population. So the resistance is incredible to be able to move, uh, towards that and implies understanding energy as a common good and as a human right, and not as a commodity left to the market forces. And it obviously implies as well, active integration of citizens in energy generation and participating in the wealth that it creates. So, so in order to level the playing field, right, with this corporate and fossil fuel interests who have deep pockets and are controlling decisions, you really have to organize, we really have to educate and amplify the demand for a distributed energy future, which is what we have been doing through Queremos Sol. And I think we have made important headway in Puerto Rico precisely we have organized.  Because we have developed the alternative. I think in the beginning or a couple of years, years ago, even a couple of years prior to Maria, there was a claim for renewable energy and there was a rejection to fossil fuels, but the alternative was not well articulated. And I think it’s important to be able to develop a proposal, an alternative that, that speaks in the same language that these corporate entities speak to. So that when they criticize or they try to manipulate information, you’re able to respond with data. You’re able to respond with evidence. So that when they say well, and this is something that is currently happening in Puerto Rico, they’re, particularly LUMA and PREPA, they have been trying to dismiss our proposal as well, That it’s something that is unattainable. That it’s something that is, it’s an aspiration, but it can’t be done. Well with this study, we’re demonstrating that it can be done. Not only that it can be done, that it can be done in a reliable way that it requires minimal investments, the distribution system, in order to get to this massive integration and that it benefits incredibly the people of Puerto Rico. So my recommendation would be to, to obviously organize and to develop proposals that lead the way to that path towards renewable energy and towards energy democracy.

And in terms of your second question, in terms of what people can do, well, obviously Puerto Rico has no elected officials at Congress and we do not vote for the president of United States. So we talk about energy democracy, but it’s kind of like a contradiction, right? In the context of Puerto Rico, it’s just because of our limited, actual democratic rights on the island. So for those folks who are interested in helping out, who are interested in this issue, we greatly appreciate additional help in terms of putting federal pressure. We have been trying to get FEMA to address this, to, to, to ensure that federal funds are used for a renewable transition in Puerto Rico, and that no federal funds are used for fossil fuel investments. And this is obviously in line with the Biden administration policy for climate change. And what we’re asking is that policy be adopted and that clear guidance be provided in terms of how federal funds can be used. And it is unacceptable that federal funds be allowed to be used nowadays in 2021, knowing what we know, for more fossil fuel investments. And in Puerto Rico, we do not want those fossil fuels investments. And that the only ones who want those fossil fuel investments are the corporations who own those fossil fuel investments. And obviously we need to amplify that message. So whatever folks in the United States can do, you do have elected officials that need to respond to you. If, if you can call your elected officials, if you can call Congress, if you can help out from your organizations and take this message on, I think it would be of great benefit and it would be a great help to what we’re trying to do now.

John Farrell: Well, Ingrid, thank you so much for all of the work that you’re doing. It is really inspirational to see what you’ve been able to organize, the research that you’ve been able to put together. You know, we’re seeing similar research being done around the country right now, the Local Solar for All campaign has done studies in a lot of U.S. states that are showing the opportunities from big investments in distributed solar. And so it just is such timely work, not only in the context of what’s happening in Puerto Rico, but of course, across the country. I just really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about it.
Ingrid Vila: No, thank you, John. And I’m happy to join you.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with environmental engineer and Cambio founder, Ingrid Vila, discussing the challenging path for energy democracy on Puerto Rico and the lessons that can provide for other U.S. communities facing widespread grid problems due to vulnerable centralized infrastructure. On the show page, look for links to the Puerto Rico distributed energy resource integration study that illustrates the potential for serving 1 million island homes with solar and energy storage, the 30 million solar homes impact report showing the job opportunities, as well as links to Cambio and Queremos Sol and our previous Local Energy Rules podcast interviews with Ingrid Vila and other Islanders. On ILSR’s website, you can also find several articles and podcasts about Puerto Rico, including a presentation I gave to the Blackstar conference in San Juan in March, 2019. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Promoting Sustainable and Responsible Actions

Ingrid Vila came to work in renewable energy advocacy by way of environmental engineering. She specialized in water, but through her service in Puerto Rico’s government, began working with renewable energy as well. In 2015, Vila left her role in the government and founded Cambio, a non-profit organization based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her new mission? To work with communities on sustainable solutions in the solid waste, water, environmental justice, governance, and energy fields.

Vila describes Cambio’s overarching mission as establishing an equitable society with greater opportunities. The organization’s efforts are spent researching, designing, and implementing socially responsible policies. Vila refers to Cambio as an “actionable think tank.”

Turmoil After Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017 and in its wake, more than a million Puerto Ricans were left without power for months. It took the local utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, nearly a year to restore power to every person affected by the blackout. The vulnerability of the island’s electric grid became the overriding topic of discussion in Puerto Rico and captured audiences around the world. Vila describes this as a “tipping point” for her, as she turned her attention to renewable energy solutions.

The impact those events had on our grid were incredibly severe and exposed the vulnerability of our current electrical system… we couldn’t just rebuild that because it obviously was not working adequately given the current challenges and realities of climate change.

Despite Puerto Rico’s 100% Renewable Portfolio Standard, leaders are looking to rebuild the vulnerable old system and reinforce a dependence on fossil fuels. The government first signed a 15 year contract to privatize the electric transmission and distribution system. Now, Puerto Rico’s Governor is suggesting that they privatize the generation system as well.

They’re here pretty much to continue to administer the status quo… this is a contract that pretty much just took the failed public monopoly and passed it on to a private hand.

We Want Sun – The ‘Queremos Sol’ Campaign

In the summer of 2018, Vila and Cambio presented ‘Queremos Sol’ as an alternative to reinforcing the status quo. Queremos Sol outlines how Puerto Rico could install solar-plus-storage on nearly all homes, powering the island with 50 percent renewable energy by 2035 and 100 percent by 2050.

Along with a rigorous public education campaign, Cambio studied how Queremos Sol would affect Puerto Rico’s electric grid through an in-depth model. In the model, they found that solar could provide 75 percent of the island’s electricity demand by 2035 and found no need to add fossil gas generation to the grid. Outage events would have less of an impact, as every home would have enough electric power to meet basic needs.

One of the greatest results from that study is being able to demonstrate that Puerto Rico’s resiliency, and individual home and community level resiliency, could be quite different if money were put and focus were put on transforming the grid via renewable energy.

In the 30 Million Solar Homes Impact report, we found that putting solar on just 1 in 4 homes in Puerto Rico would create 45,000 jobs.

Puerto Rico has 14 billion dollars of federal funds to use in repairing its energy sector. Using 9.6 billion of that sum, says Vila, Puerto Rico could install solar on 100% of homes and reduce electric rates by nearly 30 percent.

We’re not just talking about infrastructure, and cables, and things like that. We’re talking about something that is essential for human lives.

Lessons on Advancing Energy Democracy

Vila describes the road to energy democracy as “a battleground;” those holding the power won’t let it go willingly. Her best advice is to articulate the alternative in the same language as the opposition: data and evidence.

How can listeners support Puerto Rico? Vila asks that renewable energy advocates apply federal pressure. She hopes that the U.S. will create clear guidelines for federal funds and prohibit FEMA funding of fossil fuel investments.

Energy democracy means taking all that power, and that wealth… and redistributing among a wider population. So the resistance is incredible to be able to move towards that and implies understanding energy as a common good and as a human right, and not as a commodity left to the market forces.

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

This is the 138th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon via flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.