Oct. 4, 2017
Interview with Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
On Sept. 20th, Hurricane Maria flattened Puerto Rico and its electrical grid, plunging the entire island of 3.4 million people into darkness amid a late season heat wave. Two weeks later, just a tiny fraction of the power had been restored, and officials are predicting it will take six months to get the electrical grid back online. But the system that existed before the storm was almost entirely powered by dirty fossil fuels, coal and oil. Despite the fact that the sun shines on the island almost every day, cheap, clean solar power was not being harnessed. The cruel irony is that the burning of fossil intensifies climate change, which generates stronger storms with more rainfall, just like Maria.
By some estimates, the island of Puerto Rico has the potential to become a learning lab for a conversion to renewable energy. Rather than importing coal and oil, which provides precious few jobs, local people could be hired to build out a sustainable energy grid, using solar, wind and other renewables.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, who says the first order of business is to get the electrical grid up and running again. He then discusses some of the opportunities and obstacles that could stand in the way of such a wholesale conversion to renewables on Puerto Rico.
TYSON SLOCUM: Puerto Rico has what’s known as a publicly-owned power system, so as a result, the political entities in Puerto Rico have enormous leverage over the future direction of their electrical system, because government institutions have total control over the operations of the utility. The problem in Puerto Rico is staggering debt.
You have a lot of younger, able-bodied people flee the island; the island’s finances in general are in not very good shape, and the utility itself was forced to declare bankruptcy. So to make new investments and especially to contemplate significant new investments in different types of infrastructure, different types of renewable energy, is going to take money that right now Puerto Rico and its utility do not have, so you’re talking about significant outside investment.
I think one of the things the U.S. ought to do to show a commitment to growth in Puerto Rico is to focus on investments that are going to help grow the Puerto Rican economy. And one way you can do that is by focusing on renewable energy, but there’s going to have to be outside capital, whether that’s in the form of the U.S. federal government or private sector actors coming in.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What indications do you see that it’s really feasible to convert Puerto Rico’s energy grid to renewables?
TYSON SLOCUM: What we’re seeing in U.S. electricity markets is a new era of renewable energy dominance. We’re seeing massive growth in the deployment of renewable energy, particularly what’s known as utility scale renewables in wind and solar. These are large-scale renewable installations. The economics of these types of deployments of renewable energy – they are out-competing incumbent fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. This is just a remarkable technological period that we’re in right now where renewables are ascending, and they’re ascending rapidly.
And so, the question is, as we are contemplating changes to our electric grid – particularly in the wake of a devastating natural disaster like what has afflicted Puerto Rico – there’s an opportunity here to lay that groundwork. The government always needs to play a role, especially in the case of Puerto Rico given the special circumstances we have, the government has to play a leadership role in laying that infrastructure groundwork.
And the question is, is the Trump administration just going to focus on a replacement and overlay of fossil fuel infrastructure, or is there an opportunity here for innovation and sustainability?
And I think it is important to have that conversation and to immediately start a feasibility study to assess what kind of renewable energy deployment we can get on to Puerto Rico in the medium term that are going to replace ineffective or damaged fossil fuel infrastructure.
And you know, rooftop solar has been an option, but the economical choice that is better than rooftop solar, is utility-scale solar, and that’s where you have large arrays in some sort of concentrated area; it can be on top of some very large housing development or commercial development, but the larger the system, the economies of scale drive those prices down, and so there is a huge opportunity here to start to consider distributed energy systems, that instead of having a handful of very large, central power plants that historically have been powered by coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy, instead you disperse dozens or hundreds of smaller scale units closer to neighborhoods and communities, that are renewable – solar or wind.
And studies have shown, time and time again, that these decentralized systems actually have greater resilience in the face of most types of reliability events or other types of natural disaster events, because if you’ve got a centralized model, which is the handful of large power plants all connected by large transmission lines, you knock out some of that and huge geographic areas go down, whereas if a storm affects one part of the island but not others, it’s not going to knock out all of these decentralized grids, and so you’re able to have greater resilience.
For more of Melinda’s work search for her name on www.btlonline.org.