Puerto Rico should switch to solar power to meet its clean energy goal

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A U.S. government study found that with little space on the island for large solar farms or wind generators, Puerto Rico should aim to meet its clean energy goals by installing solar panels on all relevant roofs, as well as airports, brownfields and industrial sites.

The two-year study began last year after the United States pledged to help modernize Puerto Rico’s crumbling power grid, looking at the island’s wind and solar resources, land availability and energy use. Government officials promised to increase the share of renewable energy from 3% to 40% by 2025 and 60% by 2040.

“It’s extremely important,” said Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, during a webinar on Monday to discuss the study’s preliminary results. “We decided to break the bureaucracy and move federal funds.”

Faced with the threat of powerful hurricanes, Puerto Rico suffers from chronic power outages blamed on a crumbling power grid after decades of neglect and lack of maintenance. The island’s current power generation system is 97% fossil fuel based.

The webinar was attended by over 600 attendees, including solar companies looking to secure a stake in upcoming projects, and disgruntled Puerto Ricans who questioned the realities of deploying solar panels on an island where more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.

“These systems are too expensive and really few people can afford them because it is a debt that will not be repaid for many years,” wrote one of the participants, Wanda Trinidad, in a chat.

Another, Wanda Ríos, said that while the government has helped some businesses switch to renewable energy, it has been unable to get answers on how communities can get financial assistance.

“We want a solar community, but there is no program (not) available to us!” She wrote.

A senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy said the $1 billion approved by the U.S. Congress in December to help restore Puerto Rico’s grid is insufficient. U.S. President Joe Biden sought $3 billion, and federal lawmakers sought $5 billion for rooftop solar panels and storage facilities.

An ongoing study also found that Puerto Rico’s transmission system can accommodate the projected increase in renewable energy in the next 5 to 15 years, but upgrades are needed in the long term.

In addition, the study simulated hurricanes and showed that distributed smaller renewable resources tend to regenerate faster than the current system of fewer and larger power plants. Hurricane Maria leveled Puerto Rico’s power grid in September 2017 when it hit the island as a Category 4 storm, and Hurricane Fiona hit it last September as a Category 1 storm. Both hurricanes caused power outages across the island.

“The urgency only increased after Hurricane Fiona … wreaked so much havoc,” said Granholm, who is scheduled to visit Puerto Rico later this month.

This year, scientists expect to study, among others, the possibility of using sea, water and pumped storage energy as additional sources of renewable energy. The researchers also said that a preliminary climate risk assessment showed a temperature increase of up to 2 degrees Celsius and a 20% decrease in precipitation by 2055.

The final study, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will be published by the end of the year.

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