Puerto Rico could build a renewable power grid, but FEMA will fund fos

The Biden Administration has a once-in-a-lifetime alternative to assist Puerto Rico transition to a greener and extra resilient vitality future, but it’s on the verge of constructing a multibillion-dollar mistake.

Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, many residents and environmental advocates have known as for brand new clean-energy sources for the island. At the moment, Puerto Rico will get more than 97% of its electricity from imported fossil fuel. Power is expensive and unreliable.

Puerto Rico adopted laws that known as for producing 15% of its electrical energy from renewable sources by 2020, 40% by 2025, 60% by 2040, and 100% by 2050. However the Federal Emergency Administration Company (FEMA), which controls reduction funding for the island, seems able to underwrite a rebuild of the previous fossil gas system.

As environmental lawyers and professors of law, we’re shocked to see FEMA transfer ahead on a path that runs immediately counter to the White Home’s vitality and local weather coverage. President Joe Biden has known as for a governmentwide strategy that promotes clear vitality, protects public well being and the surroundings, and advances environmental justice.

In our view, FEMA’s actions don’t assist these targets. Additionally they ignore authorized necessities for federal businesses to fastidiously weigh the environmental impacts of main actions.

Rebuild or exchange with a extra resilient inexperienced system?

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 155 mph. It tore a diagonal 100-mile swath throughout the island, demolishing tens of hundreds of houses and washing away roads and bridges.

The storm toppled transmission and cell towers, snapped concrete power poles, battered power crops, and plunged the island into darkness. It killed an estimated 3,000 people and brought on over $90 billion in damages.

In response, Congress licensed some $23 billion in disaster aid, together with no less than $10 billion to revive or exchange Puerto Rico’s electrical energy grid. It additionally handed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act to advertise a extra versatile vitality system that could face up to and get well rapidly from local weather disruptions.

FEMA, which administers the funds, has allotted $9.4 billion for rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electrical energy system and will begin approving tasks after it receives more details explaining how the work will be performed. To date, none of this cash has been earmarked for renewable power, apart from a small sum to restore a hydroelectric dam that gives lower than 1% of the island’s power.

The organizations making selections in Puerto Rico are the Commonwealth’s Electric Power Authority, generally known as PREPA, and Luma Energy, a non-public firm that obtained a 15-year contract in 2021 to handle power transmission and distribution on the island. PREPA and Luma have proposed hundreds of projects for the approaching decade, but none embrace federal funding for rooftop photo voltaic, group photo voltaic, battery storage, or microgrids. Advocates say that this type of small-scale native era would make the island’s electrical energy cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable.

Advancing the general public curiosity

Each PREPA and Luma are proponents of an vitality technique that centers on importing natural gas. Federal legislation requires FEMA to take a broader strategy and be sure that it spends federal cash in ways in which assist U.S. environmental targets.

Courts have held that environmental justice is not simply a box to be checked. In our view, the legislation clearly requires FEMA to offer Puerto Ricans—who’ve lived with a creaky power system for 4 years—a seat on the desk earlier than it begins writing checks for tasks that have an effect on their lives.


Patrick Parenteau is professor of legislation, Vermont Law School and Rachel Stevens is professor of legislation & employees legal professional, Vermont Law School.