Hurricane Maria has made Puerto Rico the land of opportunity for solar power
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Seven weeks after hurricane Maria, the traffic lights are still down in San Juan. The narrow, cobbled streets of the city’s historic center, one of the island’s top tourist attractions, turn pitch black as soon as the sun sets. With appliances useless during the blackout, many of the city’s residents can’t cook, store food, or take a real shower.
The Sept. 20 storm toppled the electrical system, and locals complain next to nothing has been done about it. “I haven’t seen anyone come around here to inspect the damage, let alone to fix it,” said Carlos Alberto Soto, who’s had to close one of the two restaurants he owns for want of power.
But behind the scenes, the destruction has bred a keen contest for a massive prize: the 1.4 million customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa). With more customers than any other US electric utility, Prepa has kept its monopoly on the island for 70 years despite a dismal record. Maria has loosened its atrophied grip, and now various players are jockeying to supplant Prepa’s power supply, which relies heavily on fossil fuels, with everything from small solar-energy generators to imports of liquefied natural gas.
Prepa was already bankrupt before the storm, owing more than $9 billion—$2.7 billion more than what its rickety system was worth. In a single day, even that value was wiped out as the hurricane turned much of the company’s infrastructure from assets into scrapyard material. The cost of repairs is still unclear—Prepa had said it was in need of a $4.6 billion upgrade even before the storm—but officials supervising its bankruptcy proceedings say both federal aid and private funds will be needed.
So as the utility struggles just to turn the lights back on, solar companies, local businesses, environmentalists, the fossil-fuel industry, Prepa bondholders, and even the people who have run the company for years are all competing to plot the island’s electric future. The question is whether the contest will benefit Prepa’s already beleaguered customers, or leave them still hostage to poor service and high prices.
And at stake is far more than the size of people’s electric bills. Expensive electricity is a big reason why the whole island’s economy has been crippled for years—long before Maria struck.
The Prepa model
A drive through the hilly terrain of Adjuntas, more than 100 km (62 miles) from coastal San Juan, is a testament to Prepa’s biggest accomplishment. Despite the hurricane, many electricity poles still line the tight roads winding up the mountains, connecting the modest concrete and wooden homes in the area to the island’s sprawling grid.
It wasn’t always so. Electricity reached Puerto Rico by way of a wealthy landowner, who in 1893 installed a generator to light up his home. In 1898 the island passed from Spanish to American hands. Five decades later, only 12% of its countryside residents had electricity. Angela Santana, a 64 year-old Adjuntas resident, remembers a childhood lit by gas lamps and candles—not all that different from how she’s living in the wake of Maria, she says.
But starting in the mid-1940s, Prepa’s precursor, the Water Resources Authority, launched an effort to electrify Puerto Rico to the last house. Adjuntas’s thick vegetation and steep drops show how hard that was. The authority sometimes had to use helicopters to set up power lines. Electricity arrived to Santana’s home by the time she was 10; by the time she was 20, virtually all of Puerto Rico had been connected to the grid, a feat that countries in Latin America such as Guatemala and Belize have yet to achieve.