180° out: Environmental groups suing Puerto Rico over renewable projects

(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

This was kind of a hoot and a real switcherooski from the usual way these things go.

Activists and environmental groups including the Sierra Club sued Puerto Rico’s government Monday over the planned location of dozens of renewable energy projects meant to ease the U.S. territory’s power woes.

…The groups requested that a judge prohibit various local government agencies from approving projects on such lands, noting that they should instead be built on roofs, parking lots, landfills in disuse and previously contaminated grounds.

“The loss of prime agricultural land to install solar projects of an industrial magnitude is a serious attack on the food security of Puerto Rico, which is already in precarious condition,” said David Sotomayor, a soils professor at the University of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s Energy Bureau has so far approved 18 projects on more than 2,000 hectares that the lawsuit states are classified as special agricultural reserve and specially protected rustic land.

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Agricultural and “rustic land,” huh? Good luck whining about that if you own any here, and don’t want wind turbines or solar in your back yard.

In Puerto Rico, where the so-called “national electric grid” has been darn near non-functional since time immemorial, the fight is taking on tragi-comic proportions.

Nearly six years after Hurricane María destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and triggered the second-longest blackout in world history, Raquel Maria Gonzalez Sparks still loses power weekly, if not daily.

The nonstop outages — which many on the island say worsened after a private company took over the public power system in June 2021 — have left Gonzalez’s life in tatters.

…The transformer down the block explodes at least once every two weeks, knocking out power for her entire neighborhood in a suburb of the sprawling capital city of San Juan. She needlessly burns through fuel as her car sits in traffic jams behind disabled stoplights. Her lungs ache from the air pollution spewed by her neighbors’ diesel generators that switch on during the extended blackouts that occur at least once per week. The roar of those generators all night keeps her from sleeping. The roasting heat on days when air conditioners don’t work raises her risk of heat stroke — as well as the risk for her 86-year-old mother.

And for all that, Gonzalez, like most Puerto Ricans, pays nearly twice the national average rate for electricity — a cruel reality for a U.S. territory with worse poverty than the poorest U.S. state. Businesses pay three times the national rate.

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Part of the reason for their sky-high rates is “island.” The fuel for their power generation has to be shipped in and on the best day, that is not cheap. The biggest reason it is so expensive is the perpetual corruption inherent in Puerto Rican government that has siphoned off billions in funds for decades and decades into the pockets of dirty pols, their families and associated compadres in the utilities racket.

A small taste of that was reported by The Intercept in 2018, when they broke word of a raid by the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and federal officers. It was on a warehouse in Palo Seco, where they’d gotten word that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was hoarding a massive amount of Hurricane Maria rebuilding materials, meant to be used IMMEDIATELY in the ongoing efforts to repair the devastated electrical grid.

ON SATURDAY, A day after becoming aware of a massive store of rebuilding materials being held by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the U.S. federal government — the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with their security detail — entered a Palo Seco warehouse owned by the public utility to claim and distribute the equipment, according to a spokesperson for the Corps.

…The federal government “began distributing [supplies] to contractors,” Vera said, including hard-to-find full-tension steel sleeves, critical to rebuilding. “We obtained several hundred of these sleeves on Saturday,” Vera added.

The armed encounter comes as around half of Puerto Ricans still remain without electricity well over 100 days after Hurricane Maria. As PREPA hoards crucial resources that could help remedy the island’s dire situation, the Puerto Rican government is attempting to annihilate the power provider’s only regulator.

…“Due to the size of the warehouse,” Vera said, accounting for everything contained therein is still underway days later. Among the materials recovered so far are “2,875 pieces of critical material to contractors” along with the sleeves of full-tension steel, a component of Puerto Rican electrical infrastructure required to erect new power lines. PREPA did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment, though in a statement to the Associated Press, it rejected allegations that it had failed to distribute the warehouse’s contents. The AP only reported that “officials over the weekend also discovered some needed materials in a previously overlooked warehouse owned by Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority.” How they discovered them and how they were obtained is a story that has not been fully told.

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Their own Puerto Rican utility was stealing from the very people still sitting in the heat and the dark 100 days after a Cat 5 storm hit the island.

The entire piece is a recitation of criminal misconduct and indifference…

…The path to any economic recovery from Puerto Rico will ultimately run through its ability to rebuild a functional energy grid — a future all too unlikely amid austerity and deregulation. Combined with other kinds of storm damage, the loss of power has fueled a rapid uptick in migration from the island, as people struggle to attain jobs and basic services; an estimated 300,000 people have moved to Florida alone, a scale of migration that could further downsize the island’s already shrinking tax base. Nieves calls those who’ve left “energy refugees,” for whom “the lack of energy was the last straw.”

“Most of them,” he predicts, “will not return.”

Update: Jan. 10, 2018, 7 p.m.

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, minority leader of the Senate of Puerto Rico, provided a statement to The Intercept on the hoarded electrical equipment:

The news that has come out today about the discovery made by armed federal agents of thousands of electrical spare parts hidden in an PREPA warehouse borders on a criminal act by its managers. It is time for people to stand up and demand answers. Hundreds of thousands of families have been in the dark for more than 125 days, people keep dying, and businesses continue to close due to the lack of energy while the necessary spare parts were in the possession of PREPA. Lying about not having the parts to cover the inefficiency of PREPA is outrageous and those responsible must be taken before state and federal authorities to be criminally processed immediately.

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…and, 5 years later, nothing has changed but the name on the electrical bill. It’s now a privately run utility which has to work with decayed infrastructure, not to mention its own disastrous missteps, all while meeting the debt obligations PREPA has to the bond holders who bailed out the country.

…And that’s just according to the latest federal data available, which is from April, before the summer surge in fuel prices. Since the new utility LUMA took over the power system two years ago, the U.S.-Canadian joint venture has repeatedly raised electricity prices to cover the costs of a haphazard reconstruction of the grid.

Now it’s up to a federal court to decide whether Puerto Ricans should fork over even more money to pay down the debt and interest the state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority owes to the Wall Street equivalent of loan sharks.

Puerto Ricans are looking at rate hikes they simply can’t afford for electricity they don’t get, and an additional $100 “legacy charge” for a debt they can’t pay.

The entire situation is really a cluster of epic proportions, with no solution in sight.

As if that weren’t enough, with all the hardcore, enduring electrical grid problems in the background – LUMA is still fighting with FEMA over 2018 Hurricane Maria minutia, mind you and there’s always Hurricane Season – up pops competing lawsuits over?

Renewables.

This April, environmental groups sued FEMA for mis-using FEMA funds while beefing up the Puerto Rican grid’s resiliency to hurricanes. FEMA, according to the suit, wasn’t emphasizing RENEWABLES over fossil fuels based power generation.

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A coalition of advocacy groups is suing the federal government’s disaster response agency, claiming it is making Puerto Rico less resilient to storms and more vulnerable to power outages by rebuilding the island’s old, unreliable power grid without properly assessing the environmental impacts or considering residents’ desire for renewable energy.

Nine environmental and community organizations filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is improperly using billions of dollars in congressionally appropriated disaster recovery funds to repair the fossil fuel-based grid without comprehensively examining the toll that it would take on residents, animals and the environment. The money is supposed to be “used to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and support initiatives in Puerto Rico that focus on mitigation, adaptation, and resilience, according to the White House. However, the suit argues, FEMA is doing the opposite by restoring harmful infrastructure and not considering “reasonable alternatives” like rooftop solar, which is cheaper and more widely distributed, and can better endure intense storms.

Got that?

And NOW, only FOUR MONTHS LATER environmental groups are suing because the government wants renewables, but in places the environmentalists don’t approve of.

It looks like this when it’s back to back:

I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Are you confused? You should be. Somebody gets smacked with a hammer no matter which way they turn.

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In the meantime, transformers are still blowing up and shutting things down in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, and nothing changes.

Here’s a nice palate cleanser – it lit off today on the coast of England.

Pretty emblematic of the entire situation.

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David Strom 8:00 AM | July 25, 2024
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