Energy

Inaction on energy leaves Puerto Rico vulnerable [column] | Local Voices

Over and over again, Puerto Rico, our beloved island, suffers the impact of extreme weather events driven by climate change. Two weeks ago, Hurricane Fiona inflicted major damage on the island, as more than 30 inches of rain caused major flooding and destruction. This tragedy triggered another energy crisis, one that has hindered the lives of millions.

Sadly, this was not an isolated event.

Five years ago, millions of Puerto Ricans watched helplessly as Hurricane Maria brutally ravaged our island — nuestro hogar, nuestra gente, our home, our people. Communities were ripped apart and family homes, businesses and livelihoods were leveled as people fought to survive one of the worst natural disasters we’ve ever experienced. So much was destroyed, leaving behind nearly 3,000 fatalities (other estimates put the number higher) and forcing more than 120,000 people to flee. Recovery was very slow — indeed, it’s still ongoing — after Hurricane Maria, leaving the island’s electric grid in a precarious state. Now with Hurricane Fiona, the future of the island and its people is even more uncertain.

Today, Puerto Ricans represent the largest Latino group in Pennsylvania and many of us in the Keystone State are very connected to the American island territory and its everyday life. From a distance we live through every extreme weather event, every protest, every cry for help from our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. Most of the time it is so frustrating to see how time passes and we don’t make progress. We watch as power and communication grids on the island go down and pray that some miracle will save our families because we know that the infrastructure is not close to being ready to face another extreme weather event.

Before Hurricane Fiona left island residents without power — as of Friday morning, more than 240,000 were still without it, according to PowerOutage.us — hundreds of protesters gathered in the capital San Juan carrying refrigerators, televisions and other appliances that have been damaged due to constant power outages and massive blackouts that leave the entire island in the dark. Ninety-seven percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity is still produced through toxic fossil fuels; this leads to an unstable power grid, particularly vulnerable during extreme weather events like hurricanes.

Instead of advocating for a transition to clean and stable energy sources, authorities on the island have declared they will insist on this political myopia, continuing the island’s dependence on expensive fossil fuels. This dependence exposes locals to unreliable service and hurts Puerto Ricans’ wallets, forcing them to spend about 8% of their income on electricity — much more than most of their fellow Americans spend.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that in Puerto Rico, rooftop solar alone could potentially provide four times the island’s residential electricity needs. Our territory is also rich in steady winds, and now, thanks to President Joe Biden and the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, a decadeslong quirk in federal law that prevented renewable energy developers from investing in and harnessing these resources in Puerto Rico has been lifted. This means the island can finally participate in offshore wind development and the sale of leases to the U.S. Department of the Interior. This will bring a clean energy economy even closer.

Historic climate action like the one in the Inflation Reduction Act is the future. We Puerto Ricans know this, and we also know that we already have a wealth of natural resources that will allow us to thrive under a clean energy economy, stabilizing our energy supply and increasing our climate resilience. This is why we are taking to the island streets and Washington, D.C., to demand a clean energy transition and energy independence for our people.

We stateside Boricuas also hold great power in our hands. As the first Latina serving on Lancaster City Council, I always remind my fellow Latinos and Puerto Ricans that long gone are the days in which we were mere spectators.

Today, more than 1 million Latinos live in Pennsylvania, and many of us are eligible to vote. Right now, as we suffer once again from the devastation caused by another hurricane, we know we hold the power to make a difference in the lives of our families and friends back on the island by electing climate champions who will push further bold climate action and clean energy investments. We need climate action that will protect our families from the worst impacts of climate change, protect our wallets and place the well-being of nuestra gente over the interests of the oil and gas industry — stateside and on the island.

Janet Diaz is a member of Lancaster City Council.

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