Originally published on ILSR.org
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.
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 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.
See these resources for more behind the story:
Read Cambio’s We Want Sun and We Want More report on the impacts of the Queremos Sol proposal
Listen to our 2019 interview with Ingrid Vila, Using Disaster to Build a New, (d)emocratic Energy Paradigm
Watch John Farrell’s 2019 presentation at the Black Start conference on Puerto Rico’s electric grid
Listen to our other podcast on Puerto Rico’s unique challenges, A Local First Approach to Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Electricity System with Marcel Castro Sitiriche
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.
Featured Photo Credit: Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon via flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)