Rebuild and Replace — in Puerto Rico, Please

By Jeff Navin, Josh Freed, and Emily Estus

Before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, no U.S. state or territory had ever lost 100% of its power during a natural disaster, and it will be months before electricity on the island is fully restored. But instead of showing the same support he’s promised to Florida and Texas, President Trump has obstinately threatened to withdraw already meager FEMA funding from the island.

Without sensible leadership from the Oval Office, Congress must take the lead. And if we play our cards right, we could replace Puerto Rico’s old grid — one of the most unreliable, expensive, and dirty grids out there — with one that will both protect Puerto Ricans from the next onslaught of storms and generate cheaper, cleaner power.

Here’s the issue: Most electricity in Puerto Rico is produced by burning oil, which is both expensive and dangerously dirty (horrifyingly, Puerto Rican children are 300% more likely to have asthma than children on the mainland). And the local utility company — the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA — is $9 billion in debt and can’t invest in basic maintenance, let alone install more resilient forms of electricity or lower costs to consumers. Puerto Ricans pay twice as much for higher-polluting power than what’s available on the American mainland, unwillingly feeding a behemoth that drags on the economy and environment.

There’s no question that Congress must ignore the president’s threats and continue to provide relief for the territory, just as it has done for every other major disaster America has faced in modern times. But the federal government can do more than just supply portable generators and patchwork fixes, and it can do more than just rebuild the same system that was clearly incapable of standing up to a major hurricane.

Congress must ignore the president’s threats and continue to provide relief for the territory, just as it has done for every other major disaster America has faced in modern times.

The government should design a relief package that gets the power back on quickly and invests in Puerto Rico to make it more resilient and economically secure — and we know a few ways they could do it.

First, there’s a fast fix that will encourage private investment in cheaper, cleaner energy systems in Puerto Rico: privatize the grid by forcing PREPA to purchase power from independent developers. Although PREPA lacks the ability to raise capital for new generation capacity or transmission line infrastructure, there’s no shortage of private sector developers willing and able to build plants and sell cheap power to the utility. The federal government can facilitate this by making federal assistance to PREPA contingent on it entering into power purchase agreements that lower the cost of energy on the island. Congress can also make federal loan guarantees available for such projects to grease the wheels for immediate investment.

Second, rebuilders should seize the opportunity to replace Puerto Rico’s old transmission line system — which links remote parts of the island to centralized power plants — with more resilient regional grids and microgrids. Decentralized microgrids create an opening for cheaper electricity and improved insulation from storm damage and infrastructure failure. The Department of Energy can help design, build, and manage these grids; Congress can provide funding and set up a tendering process through which private companies compete for rights to construct and operate the new systems.

Decentralized microgrids create an opening for cheaper electricity and improved insulation from storm damage and infrastructure failure.

Finally, Congress should help Puerto Rico invest in smaller power sources like solar energy and better energy storage. PREPA has thus far staved off residential and industrial rooftop solar companies — which were already competing to get into the Puerto Rican market — from accessing the island. But given PREPA’s high power costs and the island’s incredible solar resources, utilizing these other energy sources would generate more power at lower rates. Congress should condition funds to PREPA on allowing private energy and storage providers to build, sell, or lease in the territory.

President Trump’s proposed punt on Puerto Rico is not just bad policy, it’s cruel. Where we can quickly turn the power on, we should. We would never ask any American citizen on the mainland to live without water, refrigeration, air conditioning, or access to hospitals and schools, and that sentiment should extend to the American citizens of Puerto Rico. But most importantly, investing now does more than save future taxpayer money — it sets Puerto Ricans up to receive the cleaner, cheaper, worry-free electricity they deserve.

Jeff Navin, president of BoundaryStone Partners, was Acting Chief of Staff for Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Josh Freed is Vice President for Clean Energy and Emily Estus is Writing and Editorial Advisor at Third Way.