by Caribbean News Now contributor
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico –Puerto Rico has a plan in motion to shut down its coal-burning power plants by next year. After going through an energy and current pollution crisis, governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Roselló signed the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act, which claims the island will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Not only this, but they must draw 40 percent of their energy from renewables by 2025.
According to the Senate Bill 1121 (PS 1121), which passed with bipartisan support, coal-burning power plants will get the axe in 2020 and all other coal-burning in Puerto Rico will be eliminated in 2028. Currently, the AES Energy Systems coal plant is responsible for 17 percent of the island’s power production. As it stands, AES could see their contracts amended should those same coal plants be modified to use green energy.
However, AES is also in the middle of a controversy regarding its role in disposing of over two tons of toxic coal ash on the island. Between 2004 and 2011 the company was shown to have dumped tons of toxic coal ash across fourteen municipalities across the island. Due to the lax way that it was disposed of, the ash has found its way in the water systems, reduced air quality and increased overall pollution and health risks.
Coal waste has polluted Puerto Rico’s groundwater with “signs of radioactivity, in addition to traces of arsenic, chromium, selenium and molybdenum,” according to a local news investigation. Graffiti seen on a wall reads “Puerto Rico free of [coal] ash… Who Is Killing Us?” near a landfill where coal waste is deposited in Tallaboa, Penuelas, Puerto Rico.
For longer than most can remember, Puerto Ricans have paid some of the highest energy costs in the US to a notoriously unreliable utility that neglected their grid for years and subjected local people to highly polluting toxins. In the short-term, Puerto Rico has been linked to a move to natural gas as a way to help transition away from coal while the renewable sector establishes and consolidates itself across the island.
After PS 1121 was passed late last month, Senator Eduardo Bhatia expressed his excitement as to the future of Puerto Rico, these latest developments have only emphasised his words: “Now we can move forward in developing an economy built on strong foundations that will provide more opportunities for future generations. By embracing renewable energy, our islands can reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, benefitting both the natural environment and our economy.”
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico, which in 2017 only got two percent of its energy from renewable sources, will reach 40 percent by 2025 and 100 percent by 2050.
“I’m pretty sure that this will be, by leaps and bounds, the quickest transition to renewables that’s ever happened anywhere on the planet” PJ Wilson, president of the Solar and Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico. “To go from 2 percent today to 40 percent by five years from now will be the biggest challenge the renewable energy industry has ever faced, on top of a very challenging political situation and a challenging financial situation.”
Hopefully, this will set a precedent for how the United States approach energy laws, as well as the rest of the world. With proposals such as the Green New Deal being proposed in the United States and countries such as Costa Rica already running on 100 percent renewable energy, it’s only time until other countries follow suit.
Puerto Rico has been looking to become more self-sufficient after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Reliance on renewable energy will help reduce the risks of power outages and help future-proof the island’s energy security, much like how South Australia stabilised its energy supply once it adopted a renewable energy and storage backup system in 2018. With climate change expected to create more powerful storms and wild weather events, a step away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy will help provide stability and sustainable development to Puerto Rico.
Along with the island’s decision to cut coal from its power grid, it was announced that there would be no taxes on solar and wind systems while the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) reached an agreement with creditors to restructure their $9 billion debt. As the island begins to transition away from fossil fuels, many options have been explored. AES Energy Systems, the company that runs the island’s power plant, is understood to be aiding the Puerto Rican government in identifying renewable options that it could provide.