Recent environmental news about Puerto Rico has focused on ongoing construction projects as well as the destruction of the archipelago’s coastal ecosystems. But unbeknownst to many, environmental destruction, degradation, and harm are also increasingly threatening inland areas, under the banner of developing the archipelago’s sustainable energy infrastructure.
The devastation wrought by the 2017 hurricane season showed that the Puerto Rico archipelago is already experiencing some of the gravest impacts of the climate crisis. And yet, it appears that powerful economic interests and lack of planning continue to take precedence over mitigating the archipelago’s worsening and intensifying climate-related emergencies. Recent environmental news about Puerto Rico has focused on ongoing construction projects as well as the destruction of the archipelago’s coastal ecosystems. But unbeknownst to many, environmental destruction, degradation, and harm are also increasingly threatening inland areas, under the banner of developing the archipelago’s sustainable energy infrastructure.
In winter 2022, the PR Energy Bureau issued an order approving 18 solar energy projects. But going against all scientific and planning recommendations that indicate solar projects in Puerto Rico should be sited on existing rooftops and structures, only two of the 18 projects are categorized as “virtual power plants” (VPPs)—technical language that refers to on-site solar. The other projects are utility-scale renewable energy installations to be sited on scarce agricultural land and coastal plains. In fact, to our great dismay, in Puerto Rico’s south, the clearing of land, vegetation, and forests to install solar panel “farms” is already well under way.
To clear space for industrial utility-scale solar projects, large swaths of land in Salinas, Puerto Rico are being cleared, destroying vegetation and soil in the process. The same devastating actions are proposed in the southwest and other parts of the archipelago. The first of these projects started approximately 10 years ago when the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) signed over 60 contracts with “developers.” Less than 10 of those projects were built due to a variety of reasons, including public opposition. Currently, civil society groups are gearing up to oppose this second round of industrial scale renewable energy installations.
These projects do not only cause permanent damage to land by scraping off the topsoil, altering the topography, and compacting the soil in a way that prevents infiltration of water into the soil and the underlying aquifer. Utility-scale industrial projects can also impact groundwater, cause changes and sedimentation of superficial water courses, alter drainage patterns, and aggravate flooding, which is the largest source of disaster damage in Puerto Rico. This infrastructure also destroys biodiverse habitats, and the loss of vegetation contributes to warming the ecosystem.
Furthermore, utility-scale projects are dependent on expensive and vulnerable transmission and distribution lines, poles, towers, and substations. In 2005, Congress determined that rebuilding these lines repeatedly was not a cost-effective strategy, stating: “…electric power transmission and distribution lines in insular areas [including Puerto Rico] are inadequate to withstand damage caused by the hurricanes and typhoons which frequently occur in insular areas and such damage often costs millions of dollars to repair.” The impact of the 2017 hurricane season on utility-scale solar facilities on the archipelago was so massive that it took almost 15 months to return to pre-2017 levels of total generation.
Ruth Santiago is an environmental and community lawyer who lives and works in Salinas, Puerto Rico. She is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and is a trustee on the board of Earthjustice.
Hilda Lloréns is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island. She is the author of Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice (2021).
Catalina M. de Onís is a faculty member in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver. She is the author of Energy Islands: Metaphors of Power, Extractivism, and Justice in Puerto Rico (2021).