After Hurricane Maria, as President Trump has boasted that the relief effort is going “great,” the vast majority of the island of Puerto Rico is still without power. That’s because Maria isn’t just a natural disaster. When the hurricane dumped a brutal storm surge on Puerto Rico, it was washing over an island crippled by years of debt and austerity.
The damage from Irma and Maria followed decades of neoliberal privatization that has eviscerated Puerto Rico’s brittle infrastructure. With power and public services wiped out—and currently still hobbling to get back online as swaths of the island remain isolated from federal aid—many advocates fear that the storm could accelerate the neoliberal “restructuring” agenda of PROMESA, the punishing bailout that Congress imposed last year to “rescue” the island from debt default. But while climate disaster has further exposed the commonwealth’s fragile public institutions to Wall Street’s privateering, particularly the public electricity company PREPA, a horizon for radical change is surfacing, where communities long oppressed by colonial and corporate dominion might find renewed autonomy.
In the face of escalating environmental vulnerability for the whole region due to climate change, recovery from Maria will be painful, but there may be one silver lining: There’s a chance that the disaster could end up leading the island to kick its reliance on dirty fossil fuels. Researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at University of Massachusetts-Amherst see fertile ground for renewal through green rebuilding efforts and a self-sufficient energy system. Creating a renewables-based power grid emancipated from the fossil-fuel industry could blaze a path to socially fair and climate-resilient energy sovereignty for the island.
With the right balance of massive public investment and tax restructuring, PERI argues, an island-wide program of “green growth” is possible. According to PERI, if the island’s long-struggling communities can reclaim the recovery process through democratic public control, the energy infrastructure could completely replace imported fossil fuels with homegrown renewable power by 2050.
Transitioning from global oil markets to autonomous solar and wind generation would in the long term offer healthier energy production at lower social cost, because of the tumbling price of solar, onshore wind, and geothermal power. Puerto Ricans are currently paying utility bills some three or four times higher per kilowatt-hour than their mainland counterparts’, largely because the current energy grid relies on importing dirty fuels to run outdated power plants. Launching an independent green power supply could also take a chunk out of the island’s long-standing unemployment rate, without having to rely on Wall Street vultures and large multinational investors.
PERI calculates that about $2.2 billion in annual investments is needed to establish a more socially equitable, decentralized energy infrastructure that is accessible to all residents. The main financing vehicle would be a carbon tax, starting at $25 per ton, rising incrementally to $150 per ton by 2050. The tax would yield $300 million for new energy investment, which would then be used to leverage private investment promoted through various subsidies, similar to the incentives structures used to boost solar and wind on the mainland. The remaining revenues could be allocated toward debt refinancing to stabilize the economy and reinvest in other sectors, or alternately, for long-term adaptation measures, such as coastal flood protections. To buffer against economic disruption, another portion would be invested in household rebates to offset the initial costs of transition.
With targeted planning, the new system could “create widespread opportunities for small-scale ownership forms to flourish within the island’s energy sector,” according to PERI. On-ramping to a green frontier would foster progressive new industries as well. “A small-scale, cooperative, community-based ownership structure—supported, though not controlled by government,” says PERI Co-Director Robert Pollin. And on Puerto Rico’s landscape, green power is “especially well-suited to a small island economy with…the abundance of a sunny and windy climate.”
The initial financing for launching the infrastructure will require public-sector investment, but since the renewable-energy sources will be community-driven, “once they are up and running, they should operate well without excessive government control.” A decentralized infrastructure would boost public buy-in for renewable industries, while promoting more participatory development.
A range of democratically controlled energy projects could emerge, following Europe’s model of regional and local investment in cooperatives, public utilities, or household-level rooftop solar. Eventually, PERI projects, a green overhaul would yield net growth of about 25,000 jobs in 2020, and 50,000 jobs in 2035, through both direct employment in the renewables sector and reinvesting revenues recaptured from import substitution for fossil-fuel imports, which will then promote expansion of community-based energy generation.
While reducing emissions is one path to economic renewal, it serves as a vital buffer against future catastrophe on the island, which is critical to shield the island more effectively from the next Category Five.
According to Evert Boop of Disaster TechLab, a grassroots group deploying emergency solar-powered digital communications to aid recovery in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico’s current infrastructure is inherently more vulnerable to extreme weather events, but also ripe for creating off-grid, self-sufficient power sources. “By making an island like Puerto Rico or any other island…more independent in their energy needs, it’s always going to decrease the response time in case of a disaster.” But with autonomous green-energy production, “If you can rebuild something that’s much more self-sustainable…in the long term you have huge economic benefits and in the short term, following disaster, as an infrastructure you’re able to bounce back a lot quicker.”
Preempting the implementation of another neocolonial plan that would perpetuate fossil-fuel dependency and cyclical debt, the green alternative would produce equitable growth and also climate-change-mitigation benefits for the whole hemisphere.
Green renewal is an ambitious goal, but massive change is inevitable during the recovery. Pre-disaster, Pollin observes, the island was locked into a draconian austerity agenda; the desperation following Maria could lead to surprising salvation. “Now, given the need [for total rebuilding], there is at least an opening to move forward in constructing a green-energy infrastructure.”
While federal relief efforts remain derelict and financial vultures encircle the storm’s spoils, Puerto Rico now has the ability to take control of its energy future.