When the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico was shaken from its slumber by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake early on the morning of January 7, along with the buildings that collapsed on the south of the island, the brief shutdown of the US commonwealth’s energy grid focused attention on sources of power for a region buffeted by climate change.
Though the lights came on for much of the island in a matter of days, the experience for many brought to mind the days after 2017’s apocalyptic Hurricane Maria, which killed more than 3000 people and during which the island’s power grid collapsed, plunging most of it into darkness for months.
The call to diversify Puerto Rico’s ageing energy infrastructure – dominated by the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority – was a subject of intense discussion even before the storm, and debate has only grown in the years since.
“Before Hurricane Maria, it was standard practice to neglect some aspects of the system because they knew a hurricane was coming and they knew they could ask for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to rebuild it,” says Marla Perez Lugo, a professor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. “Now the vulnerabilities are strategic because they are pushing for the privatisation of the system to be able to justify the decoupling of the system and the selling of some parts of it.”
Before he was ousted following massive street protests in mid-2019, Puerto Rico’s former governor Ricardo Rosselló signed into law the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act, stipulating that Puerto Rico must obtain 40% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025, 60% by 2040 and 100% by 2050.
“That impetus for renewable energy before Hurricane Maria opened the door for a market to develop renewable energy and that aligned with the decarbonisation narrative of a bunch of environmental groups,” says Cecilio Ortiz Garcia, a senior fellow with the National Council for Science and the Environment. “If you have the socioeconomic wherewithal to disconnect from the grid, there is a range of products out there depending on your ability and willingness to pay.”
Puerto Rico’s creaking electrical grid, under which 70% of the energy is produced on the south of the island but 70% of consumption is centred in the north, mostly around the capital San Juan, is still reckoned by many observers to be fragile. After January’s earthquake, however, microgrids such as those created by groups such as the Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico continued operating without interruption.
At the sharp end
Beyond Puerto Rico, spurred by the twin spectres of ageing infrastructures and the threat of climate change, governments across the Caribbean are looking to diversify their power generation options.
“With the climate crisis, even for countries that are small and use relatively little energy, you still don’t want to be contributing to the global pool of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, particularly the countries that are on the frontline of climate change,’’ says David Smith, director of the Centre for Environmental Management at the Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
In Jamaica, the 50-megawatt Paradise Park Solar Farm, developed by German investment and asset management firm MPC Capital, has boosted renewable output to 17% of the country’s energy generation capacity because it resells the electricity it produces to the Jamaica Public Service Company. Earlier in 2020, the state-owned Jamaica Urban Transit Company announced it would be adding 45 electric buses to its fleet.
“Having several different sources of power in the national grid is important,” says Mr Smith. “Having renewable energy, having discreet self-contained energy sources for emergency clinics, schools and other sectors that may be remote, is a very good way to build resilience and to get to operations running long before the grid catches up.”
In the Bahamas, brutally slammed by Hurricane Dorian in 2019, the national energy policy of prime minister Hubert Minnis has committed the country to a minimum of 30% of its energy matrix coming from renewable sources by 2033, through the installation of solar photovoltaic cell systems in public buildings and assets and the use of solar power plants in 20 islands of the 700-plus island archipelago.
A game of monopolies
In tumultuous nearby Haiti, a tug of war between president Jovenel Moïse and his political and domestic opponents has seen calls for him to step down amid accusations of corruption, with Mr Moïse charging that much of the hostility is being fomented by dishonest economic actors who have “captured” state resources through contracts with entities such as the state power company, Electricité d’Haiti.
“The reality is that for decades a handful of companies have monopolised our country’s top industries, including energy and power, crippling our economy and keeping our people in the dark,” Mr Moïse told fDi. “[We need to] open up a competitive, transparent bidding process that should have been in place long ago.”
Among other plans in Haiti, the country recently launched its second solar microgrid in the country's south, created by US-based EarthSpark International, in collaboration with Enèji Pwòp, Haiti’s in-country social enterprise arm. The company has plans to create 22 additional grids over the next four years.
“Our work really is building community electricity systems in places with poor infrastructure or defunct grid systems,” says EarthSpark president Allison Archambault. “In terms of the perception of the reliability and availability of microgrids, a lot has changed, and we need to make sure these grids are built sustainably and that we are sure that we are building infrastructure that will be functioning for the next 25 years at a minimum.”
This article first appeared in the April-June edition of fDi Magazine. The full digital version of the magazine is available here.