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Puerto Rico lawmakers send 100% renewable energy bill to governor

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A technician installs a home solar array in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, in July 2018. Lawmakers sent a bill to the governor March 25 that could boost demand for such systems.
Source: Associated Press

Roughly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria demolished Puerto Rico's power grid and left many of its inhabitants without electricity for months, lawmakers in the U.S. Caribbean commonwealth have sent a bill to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló seeking to fortify the island's still-fragile energy system by transitioning to 100% renewable energy by midcentury.

The territory's House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 1121 on March 25 on a 33-12 vote. A member of Rosselló's conservative New Progressive Party introduced the multiparty measure in October 2018 in the Senate, which approved the bill March 14.

The legislation seeks to create a "resilient, reliable and robust energy system, with fair and reasonable rates for all classes of consumers," according to an English translation of the proposal. It would slash and eventually end Puerto Rico's fossil fuel-fired power generation while ramping up renewables to at least 40% by 2025, 60% by 2040 and 100% by 2050.

That would be a giant leap for Puerto Rico, which relied on renewables for only 2% of its electricity in 2017, while petroleum accounted for 47%, natural gas for 34% and coal for 17%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's latest data. Puerto Rico's ambitious legislation is part of a growing movement around the United States. California, Hawaii and, most recently, New Mexico have approved 100% clean energy laws, and a host of other states are considering similar proposals in 2019.

Puerto Rico's measure would phase out coal-fired power by 2028 and support distributed energy systems by locking in the island's net energy metering policy for at least five more years, streamlining interconnection and clarifying that solar energy systems at homes and businesses qualify for renewable energy certificates for compliance with the bill's overall targets. The legislation also contains a tax break on energy storage equipment sales and promotes the use of energy efficiency, demand response, microgrids and small-scale power hybrid plants that, at least during the interim transition period, would include natural gas.

Lawmakers set a goal of keeping electric rates below 20 cents/kWh. Relying heavily on imported fossil fuels, Puerto Rico's residential rates were 22.77 cents/KWh as of December 2018, with commercial rates at 24.05 cents/kWh and industrial rates at 19.33 cents/kWh, according to the EIA.

Puerto Rico, either through Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the island's now-bankrupt monopoly utility, or another government entity, would maintain ownership over transmission and distribution assets and legacy generation under the proposal. While the territory is seeking to spin off power system operations, maintenance and administration to a third party through a public-private partnership, the island's utility would remain the provider of last resort for any of the functions ultimately transferred to other entities.

'Historic legislation'

Renewable energy companies applauded Puerto Rico lawmakers for passing the measure and said they expect the governor to sign it.

"Policymakers have listened to the solar and storage industry leaders' input every step of the way while developing this historic legislation," P.J. Wilson, president of the Solar and Storage Association of Puerto Rico, a local trade group, said in an emailed statement. The bill "eliminates many of the barriers that have frustrated solar deployment at all levels for years and creates a clear vision for ramping up clean energy," he said, adding that implementation "will require strong continued collaboration as Puerto Rico's power grid transforms from 97% imported fossil fuel dependence to 100% local clean energy."

"Puerto Rico has been in need of a long-term, meaningful bipartisan project," Javier Rua-Jovet, Sunrun Inc.'s director of public policy in Puerto Rico, said in an interview. "Kudos to the public leaders here from the governor down." As Puerto Rico transitions, Sunrun sees potential for grid services from battery-backed home solar arrays, building on Sunrun's expansion of the pairing in the continental U.S., Rua-Jovet said. "This is a great opportunity to have a pro-solar policy on the books that's going to be stable long term."