Conservation and community groups sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Department of Homeland Security in April over their plans to rebuild Puerto Rico’s centralized electric grid back to the fossil fuel status quo instead of investing in the distributed renewable energy Puerto Ricans need.
“Fossil fuel power plants produce pollutants that poison our health and kill our neighbors, and other living beings that live nearby,” said Victor Alvarado Guzman of Comite Dialogo Ambiental. “The toxins produced by these facilities also harm the air, water and land. That’s why the funds from agencies such as FEMA must be used toward renewable energy, especially rooftop solar.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, challenges FEMA’s failure to consider rooftop solar, storage and other forms of distributed renewable energy for projects intended to provide electricity to communities at risk from Puerto Rico’s hurricane-battered grid. It also says FEMA violated federal law by failing to consider the environmental harm from rebuilding and relocating Puerto Rico’s polluting fossil fuel infrastructure, including jeopardizing clean air and water and endangered species.
“The direction promoted by FEMA and the state government to restore the outdated and polluting electrical infrastructure in Puerto Rico is contrary to the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” said Federico Cintrón Moscoso, program director of El Puente de Williamsburg’s Latino Climate Action Network in Puerto Rico. “It extends the life of fossil fuels and halts any progress toward renewable energy. It perpetuates inequality against environmental justice communities disproportionately impacted by climate change. There are other alternatives, and we demand a change of direction that promotes real solutions and climate justice.”
More than five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths and decimating the archipelago’s already fragile electricity grid, FEMA is finally planning to spend disaster funds on permanent repairs to the grid. But the agency wants to invest at least $12 billion in projects that lock Puerto Ricans into decades of fossil-fuel dependence. FEMA’s projects conflict with Puerto Rico’s 2019 law setting a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050 and Puerto Ricans’ own energy plan for local solar and storage.
“Puerto Rico needs local solutions to adopt renewable energy options that do not compromise food security,” said Carlos Alfredo Vivoni of Frente Unido Pro-Defensa del Valle de Lajas. “The local government seems committed to sponsoring utility-scale photovoltaic projects on protected farmland or in ecologically sensitive land. That needs to change. FEMA needs to ensure that rooftop solutions, with photovoltaic panels and batteries, are evaluated as the most resilient options because utility-scale projects have proven to be unreliable after hurricanes. We can adopt resilient renewable energy options and protect farmland at the same time.”
Fossil fuel infrastructure in Puerto Rico is disproportionately located in low-wealth communities where people live with the pollution it creates, including sulfur dioxides, lead, cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde and coal ash.
In 2021 LUMA Energy, a private Canadian-American corporation, took charge of the archipelago’s publicly owned power distribution system. LUMA will be a major recipient of FEMA disaster recovery and mitigation funds. In January, Genera PR, a subsidiary of American liquified gas company New Fortress Energy, was awarded a contract to take over power generation in Puerto Rico.
“FEMA has a unique opportunity to transform Puerto Rico’s electrical system into a more resilient one that protects Puerto Ricans from future hurricanes,” said U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.). “While it is true that the local government has broad discretion over the reconstruction of the electrical system, FEMA can do much more to seriously consider distributed renewable energy alternatives and their long-term benefits for Puerto Rico. The best use of disaster funds, and the pursuit of environmental justice for the island, calls for this course of action.”
Puerto Rico’s centralized, fossil fuel-dependent electric system is vulnerable to damage from storms that the climate crisis brings to the archipelago with increasing intensity. Distributed renewable energy resources like rooftop solar, solar microgrids and community solar have repeatedly demonstrated they can keep the lights on when the grid goes down.
A recent U.S. Department of Energy report found that Puerto Rico had more than enough renewable energy potential to meet its electricity needs. It also found that residents strongly preferred rooftop solar and other distributed renewable sources over utility-scale renewable energy because of its resilience as well as to preserve agricultural and environmentally significant lands.
“FEMA has no business committing billions of dollars to a dirty, unreliable, centralized fossil fuel-based grid that’s guaranteed to plunge families back into the dark the next time a climate-driven storm hits,” said Augusta Wilson, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Puerto Ricans have repeatedly demanded resilient rooftop solar and storage. They want to seize the opportunity to become a global example of what a safe, resilient energy system can look like. FEMA is recklessly ignoring Puerto Ricans and the climate emergency to enrich colonizing fossil fuel companies.”
The lawsuit was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and nine Puerto Rican community groups: Alianza Comunitaria Ambiental del Sureste, Campamento Contra las Cenizas en Peñuelas, Casa Tallaboeña de Formación Comunitaria y Resiliencia, Comité Caborrojeño Pro Salud y Ambiente, Comité Dialogo Ambiental, Comité Yabucoeno Pro-Calidad de Vida, El Puente de Williamsburg and Frente Unido Pro-Defensa del Valle de Lajas.
News item from The Center for Biological Diversity
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