“If your goal is to get to 100 percent renewables by 2050, you should start investing in them now,” clean energy advocates tell the government.
A long-term vision for Puerto Rico’s electricity system has been clarified, but the near term remains uncertain.
The number of jurisdictions pursuing a goal of 100 percent renewables keeps growing.
Puerto Rico looks to be next, with a late November plan from the island’s governor and a proposal before the legislature both calling for 100 percent renewables by 2050. In October, a diverse group of clean energy advocates also published a proposal, “Queremos Sol,” that outlines a path to all-renewables by the same year.
Agreement on the territory’s energy system seems to have coalesced around a renewable portfolio standard and timeline.
“I can’t think of any entity that’s said it’s opposed to 100 percent renewables by 2050. That certainly is progress,” said Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), which contributed to the Queremos Sol report. “That’s a consensus that didn’t exist before the hurricane.”T
It’s taken months to get to this point. And while the long-term vision seems to have been clarified, stakeholders remain divided on short-term goals.
“What the problem is, and what we need to be careful about, is how different organizations and groups propose to get there,” said Ruth Santiago, a lawyer at local environmental group Comité Diálogo Ambiental and a contributor to the Queremos Sol report.
In its August fiscal plan, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) said it was looking to convert some plants to burn natural gas and that it would cost $500 million to build a liquefied natural gas import terminal. When the utility’s current CEO, José Ortiz, came aboard, he said natural gas would support a future with more renewables. PREPA did not respond to requests for comment about the proposed RPS, but in its fiscal plan the utility lays out a path to a generation mix in 2023 that’s 32 percent solar and wind and 41 percent gas.
IEEFA also alleges that Governor Rosselló, who appointed Ortiz, is working on “backroom natural gas deals” outside the integrated resource planning process. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The legislative proposal also leaves an opening for natural gas infrastructure in the near term. It includes energy-efficiency targets and a ban on coal in the next decade, but also allows oil-fired plants to convert to dual-fuel so they can produce power using natural gas.
The group of engineers, environmentalists and clean energy advocates who wrote the Queremos Sol proposal are pushing for integration of renewables now. Santiago said investing in natural gas in the short term might be “disastrous” and will likely impede investment in solar.
“Renewable energy and storage technologies are available now,” said Kunkel. “And if your goal is to get to 100 percent renewables by 2050, you should start investing in them now.”
“The most important challenges are going to be what investment decisions get made in the next few years. Most of Puerto Rico’s power plants are old and [need] to be replaced in any event. What they get replaced with really matters in terms of what type of fuel infrastructure you’re locking yourself into for the next several decades,” she added.
In addition to proposing that the island keep PREPA publicly owned — the government has started the process to privatize it — the group outlines a 50 percent by 2035 RPS, ratcheting up to 100 percent by 2050. The plan focuses on distributed solar and empowering Puerto Ricans to act as “prosumers,” since the mountainous island doesn’t have an excess of land for large-scale arrays.
Puerto Rico already has an RPS, a target of 12 percent by 2015. It hasn’t come close to achieving it. But advocates say getting to 100 percent is technologically feasible.
Dr. Agustín Irizarry Rivera, a professor of electrical engineering at University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez and a contributor to the Queremos Sol report, said investing in fossil fuel plants now makes little sense. Puerto Rico’s high electricity prices of about 20 to 21 cents per kilowatt-hour mean that solar-plus-storage systems, at roughly 26 cents per kilowatt-hour according to Irizarry Rivera, are nearing grid parity.
Irizarry Rivera also said he thinks the government is underestimating the drive of Puerto Rican consumers to have energy independence.
“That sentiment is stronger than the government understands right now. I don’t think they have realized the tremendous change that occurred in people when we had the longest blackout in the history of the United States,” said Irizarry Rivera. “They are no longer willing to be captives of an energy company, whether it’s private or publicly owned.”
Though data on post-Maria solar installations is scarce, Irizarry Rivera said that based on anecdotal reports, local companies are installing five to seven times more systems than before the storm. Installers have told Greentech Media that more and more customers are requesting energy storage as well.
Though Puerto Rico’s financial situation is tenuous, the Queremos Sol group points to possible funding streams from Department of Energy and other federal grants, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and joint investments from local organizations and private companies. Another $100 million per year could come from PREPA rates, according to the group.
They argue that reducing reliance on imported oil is the best way to make energy more affordable on the island, as well as more resilient using a distributed grid.
To indicate the feasibility of a 100 percent renewables vision, the group points to examples like Hawaii, where regulators are already grappling with a rapidly expanding share of renewables.
Contributors like Irizarry Rivera say the decisions made now are so important because any overbuilding of infrastructure could saddle Puerto Rico with stranded assets when it does make the jump to more solar and wind. Irizarry Rivera said the policies set forth in Puerto Rico could also foreshadow the future for the mainland, as more and more states and cities contemplate 100 percent renewables.
“This is a strong grassroots movement,” said Irizarry Rivera. “Whatever happens to us in terms of laws and policies will eventually affect our fellow citizens in the United States. I think everyone should be very attentive to what’s happening in Puerto Rico right now.”