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Mameyes is a small community with about a thousand inhabitants in the central mountains of Puerto Rico. But in its own way, it is one of the leaders of the energy future of Puerto Rico.
Francisco Valentin grew up in Mameyes, where he runs a small shop. Even before Mary, he had great ambitions for his city. After Maria, he knew that his community should be powered by solar energy. With the help of foundations, charities and the University of Puerto Rico – and not the government – he has done so and rebuilt the school, the health clinic and several other buildings in the city. 19659008] The change to solar was important, says Valentine, because it took Maria months to restore power. This makes Mameyes self-sufficient and able to respond to the needs of residents in future disasters. "The whole school is completely solar powered" and can serve as a shelter, he says.
With so much sunlight solar energy is booming in Puerto Rico since Maria. Everywhere on the island, individuals, communities and businesses install solar panels and battery systems. At the Community Foundation in Puerto Rico, Javier Rivera works on solar systems with 50 mostly rural, underserved communities. His goal is to connect 250 communities for Solar over the next few years.
Rivera says, especially after Maria, people here realized that they could not rely on the Electric Power Authority of Puerto Rico, PREPA. "Many people [didn’t] trust the PREPA system before the hurricane, it's no secret," he says. "People are starting to think about finding a solution, a long-term solution, and the sun is one of them."
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PREPA, a state-owned utility, had serious problems long before Hurricane Maria. After decades of mismanagement, billions of dollars of debt led to the bankruptcy of the agency. It negotiates a repayment plan with its creditors. At the same time, the government is looking for a buyer – a private company that will take over and modernize the island's rickety transmission network.
Fernando Padilla, one of PREPA's top managers, agrees that the way the company used to work makes no sense. "PREPA no longer serves the needs of the people and the island," he says. "We can not go ahead with a monopoly if we want to change the energy sector."
PREPA officials say they are ready to make big changes. The Authority has prepared a detailed plan for converting its power grid into a more robust system. It involves the hardening of transmission towers and lines, some of which are laid underground. It is also planned to divide the system into eight mini-grids, each with its own power generation. This is to prevent a renewed extended power failure on the whole island.
The first phase will cost $ 1.4 billion. Padilla is optimistic that the entire conversion will take about five years. As part of that, he says, PREPA will significantly increase the amount of electricity generated by renewable energy. "This is an important part of what an energy sector should look like," says Padilla.
At present, only a small part of the utility's energy comes from renewable energy sources. "It's not exactly what a world-class utility should look like." Part of this renewable energy will come from communities and stores with solar panels. PREPA also plans to build large solar parks.
This is in line with a new law in Puerto Rico, which sets an ambitious timetable for the transition to renewable energy, including solar energy. It requires the island to receive half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2035 and to use 100% renewable energy by 2050.
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Padilla says the state utility is required to meet these deadlines. Others are skeptical about how PREPA plans to do so. "There is a gap between what the government says and what it submits to regulators," says Sergio Marxuach. He is at the Center for New Economy, a research group in San Juan.
While PREPA talks about the construction of solar parks and other renewable sources, it is investing heavily in natural gas in the short term. It is planned to build new natural gas power plants and terminals to receive supplies of liquefied natural gas. According to PREPA, investments in new natural gas plants and terminals are required as the utility starts to move to renewable sources.
Marxuach says PREPA is doing this backwards. He says the company should "do as much as it can for renewable energy, have batteries ready for backup, and then, as a third line of defense, if you will, the new natural gas, we think that makes sense for Puerto Rico.
PREPA officials listen. Their latest plan to rebuild the grid, which was submitted to regulators last month, significantly increases the expected investment in solar energy and the batteries needed to store it.
However, while PREPA is studying the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, others in Puerto Rico are not waiting. According to a new study, businesses, individuals and communities in Puerto Rico will spend more than $ 400 million on solar energy over the next five years.