What is energy justice and how does it relate to the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico?

Marissa Alba Naclerio

Fri Oct 21 2022 17:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

When Hurricane Fiona made landfall as a Category 1 in southwest Puerto Rico, it knocked out power to all the 1,468,223 customers supplied by LUMA Energy.

 

Slamming the island with 80mph winds and 28 inches of rain, the island-wide power outage revealed the critically outdated power infrastructure that has plagued the island long before the most recent hurricane season. In Puerto Rico, the lack of alternative power options for critical facilities means that hospitals are also left without power and residents at home must seek places with enough electricity to power their critical medical devices.

 

How did it get this bad?

 

Puerto Rico’s power runs on a cross-country transmission system, meaning that energy generated on the southern coast is sent via transmission lines to the rest of the island. Transmission towers run along steep hillsides in the mountainous center of the island. So when storms hit, these lines regularly fail.

 

When Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, it damaged Puerto Rico’s already-aging power infrastructure. It took Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) over 11 months to fully restore power. Delays like this have only been exacerbated since LUMA took over in 2021, particularly because hundreds of experienced, unionized line workers refused job offers from the private energy company after learning they would lose hard-fought benefits. A study from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) has confirmed that the shortage of experienced workers largely caused LUMA’s time lag in restoring power. Not only is Puerto Rico’s aging infrastructure unreliable and unjust, but the government has failed to make progress toward achieving 40% renewable energy by 2025, which could provide more reliable energy to the island’s population - especially in the wake of intensifying hurricane seasons.

 

So how does this relate to energy justice for la isla del encanto?

 

Energy injustice is experienced by BIPOC and low-income residents in frontline communities who are confronted by more frequent service breakdowns, apagones, and higher energy burdens. The frequency of these power outages inspired Bad Bunny’s song and accompanying music video/documentary, El Apagón, which expresses frustration about the state of energy distribution on the island and the desire of the Puerto Rican people for self-determination and the departure of foreign companies like LUMA.

 

Energy justice, on the contrary, concerns itself with implementing equitable energy systems and remediating social, economic, and health burdens on communities that have historically been harmed by the energy system. It aims to make energy more accessible, affordable, and clean for all communities.

 

What future can we envision for energy justice in Puerto Rico?*

*Based on Advancing Energy Justice as a Climate and Public Health Solution

 

The future of energy is rooted in both the employment of experienced, unionized workers and the equitable distribution of power to the entire island. In the face of intensifying hurricane seasons, a resilient power system is key to public health and safety. Energy justice also means #PaFueraLUMA – a shift to not-for-profit public ownership of energy. This means that power is distributed and owned by the community, and profits are reinvested locally to promote environmental sustainability. This also means a financial and political recommitment to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, which will ultimately benefit every resident of Puerto Rico.

 

As always, a just energy transition means listening to the wishes of the Puerto Rican population: supporting community groups on the ground and in the most impacted areas, partaking in mutual aid when possible, and amplifying the voices of our Puerto Rican familia.

 

Sources:

Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico as a Category 1 storm. Flooding still wrought havoc. - The Washington Post

LUMA Energy Power Outages

Puerto Rico power grid no match for Fiona; residents unsurprised | Reuters

Why did Fiona wreck Puerto Rico? Blame climate, fragile grid. - E&E News

Extreme Rainfall Associated With Hurricane Maria Over Puerto Rico and Its Connections to Climate Variability and Change - Keellings - 2019 - Geophysical Research Letters - Wiley Online Library

A global slowdown of tropical-cyclone translation speed | Nature

Puerto Rico's power grid struggled ahead of Hurricane Fiona blackout - The Washington Post

All of Puerto Rico out of power as Hurricane Fiona lashes island - The Washington Post

Section 1 - Defining Energy Justice: Connections to Environmental Justice, Climate Justice, and the Just Transition

5 years on, failures from Hurricane Maria loom large as Puerto Rico responds to Fiona

Puerto Rico Territory Energy Profile.

10 reasons why energy privatisation fails

Photo credit: Puerto Ricans demand cancellation of contract with LUMA Energy : Peoples Dispatch