Hurricanes Fiona and Ian gave solar power its time to shine

Source: By GLORIA GONZALEZ, KELSEY TAMBORRINO and CATHERINE MOREHOUSE, Politico • Posted: Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The green electricity source faces obstacles in Puerto Rico and Florida, where sun power largely held up during Hurricanes Fiona and Ian.

Damaged solar panels and destroyed vegetation are seen at a farm in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017.

Hurricanes Fiona and Ian caused catastrophic flooding, knocked out power lines and washed away roads and bridges. But people who could afford solar panels and batteries say those systems kept the lights on during the storms, | Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

Solar power withstood the hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico and Florida last month — a fact that could aid the technology’s supporters in lobbying battles around the country.

Hurricanes Fiona and Ian caused catastrophic flooding, knocked out power lines and washed away roads and bridges. But people who could afford solar panels and batteries say those systems kept the lights on during the storms, and even allowed them to share electricity with neighbors left in the dark.

Jason Burwen, vice president of energy storage at the American Clean Power Association, said these on-site solar and storage installations have proven “reliable, through and after these disasters.” That’s particularly important, he said, as storms like the ones in Puerto Rico and Florida tend to take down crucial infrastructure such as wires — even as power plants themselves remain online.

Ben Ollis, a power and energy researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said lessons that Puerto Rico learned from 2017’s catastrophic Hurricane Maria led to improved installation techniques to protect solar systems against high winds. He has been working on a community project in the mountainous town of Adjuntas, which used $1.7 million from two nonprofits to create two microgrids with solar and battery storage.

Chris Rauscher, senior director of market development and policy at the company Sunrun, said solar and storage installations helped families in Puerto Rico fare better through Fiona than they had during Maria. Sunrun says its systems provided Puerto Rican residents with roughly 400,000 hours of aggregated backup power during and after Fiona, with the average duration being 100 hours per household.

Following Maria, it was “impressed upon” residents in Puerto Rico that rooftop solar was a potentially cheaper and more reliable alternative, said Tom Sanzillo, director of financial analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which advocates for a sustainable energy transition. He said many have heeded that call.

In Puerto Rico, “we’re now seeing 2,000 families per month adding solar power to their own homes, independent of any public support, and in fact, actually, in the face of governmental opposition to this,” Sanzillo said. “We expect that to accelerate.”

One factor driving that trend is economics: Puerto Ricans, who rely mostly onenergy from four fossil fuel power plants, pay some of the highest electricity costs in the United States. Soaring fossil fuel expenses for an island that imports much of its energy resources have driven a nearly 84 percent rise in average electric rates since January 2021. This on an island where the median income is $21,000, IEEFA noted.

Customers on the island are “sick and tired of having unreliable electricity” and “living with a grid that could be viewed as third world,” Rauscher said. He said those complaints are leading to a “consumer-driven clean revolution.”

But solar energy supporters in Puerto Rico still have a fight on their hands in pushing the territory’s leaders and Washington to give renewable power a more prominent role in the rebuilding of the island’s electrical grid from damage suffered during Maria.

The Queremos Sol coalition — whose name means “We Want Solar” — is pushing President Joe Biden to require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to favor rooftop solar systems and other small-scale renewable-energy projects, rather than fossil fuels, when doling out $9.5 billion in federal recovery and reconstruction aid.

“Otherwise most people here won’t be able to afford it, and it will be potentially life-threatening not to have it,” said Ruth Santiago, a community and environmental attorney in Puerto Rico and a member of Queremos Sol. She met with Biden during his visit to Puerto Rico this month and said he appeared “receptive” to the message.

Lawmakers including House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) also want Congress to make solar energy more affordable in Puerto Rico by using an emergency spending bill to provide $5 billion for rooftop solar and storage solutions for low-income households and people with disabilities. They noted that a new residential solar panel and battery system costs about $25,000, making solar energy unaffordable for many island residents.

“Those without the means to buy or finance them are getting left behind,” the legislators wrote in a letter Tuesday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi supported the request. “We currently have $800 million in federal funds earmarked for that purpose, but we clearly need more,” he said Wednesday via tweet.

A 2019 law passed by the Puerto Rican government requires the island’s government-owned utility to obtain 100 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2050. But it has a ways to go: Solar constituted only 1.4 percent of total generation in the 2021 fiscal year, according to the Energy Information Administration. And Puerto Rico’s energy plan would allow for new or upgraded fossil fuel infrastructure if needed to maintain reliability.