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Op-Ed: Life-saving energy for Puerto Ricans now, not lip service

It’s nearly the end of the third hurricane season after María — after the longest power blackout in U.S. history and its thousands of casualties — and still none, zero, of the federal life-saving dollars for Puerto Rican solar energy resiliency have flowed.

According to Doctors Nishant Kishore, Domingo Marqués and Ayesha Mahmud, as published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 4,645 post María deaths “is likely [a] conservative” estimate. Of these, they concluded that the increased use of “support that is dependent on electricity” was among the “primary cause[s] of sustained high mortality” and that “those dependent on life-sustaining equipment were disproportionately affected.”

This level of suffering and death need not occur ever again. UPR-Mayagüez researcher Marcel Castro Sitiriche has found that ”[a]n investment of $3.5 billion [in solar+storage] for the last 500,000 homes that were reconnected would have reduced the [post María] blackout size by two thirds and the length of the blackout by 78%.”

Puerto Rico’s funding request to the federal government, officially submitted by former Gov. Rosselló was fitting: $4.2 billion to $6.2 billion for “increase[d] use of solar-powered generators and solar backup power sources.”

Six billion dollars to secure that never again would thousands have to suffer and perish due to lack of basic energy resiliency. 

Led by House Democrats, Congress replied aptly by appropriating over $20 billion to deal with the humanitarian crisis.

However, the Trump Administration has inhumanely held up this funding. We’re nearing the end of the 2020 hurricane season and there’s simply no movement by the federal government on the matter, except lip service.

Not a day after Vice President Joe Biden unveiled in Kissimmee an unprecedentedly detailed plan for Puerto Rico, including a clear forward-looking vision on renewable energy resiliency for the island, Trump reacted with an 11th hour promise to disburse billions of dollars in pending Federal Emergency Management Agency reconstruction funds for the island.

Three years after hurling paper towels at us, Trump suddenly promises to hurl greenbacks. But talk is cheap. Puerto Rico needs real action, now.

Our people have been, for the past three and a half years, held hostage by negligence, and outright disdain by Republicans. On the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, Trump’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), foot-dragged on Congressionally appropriated money for Puerto Rico to the point that it had to be literally forced by House Democrats to move to publish required overdue federal registers (H.R.2157; P.L. 116-20). Yet even that legal deadline, Sept. 4th, 2019, was simply Ignored by HUD Chief Ben Carson, with impunity.

It was only after the major earthquakes and aftershocks in Puerto Rico since early January 2020, and amid renewed pressure from Democratic leaders, including Biden, that an official notice by HUD was finally emitted.

Adding insult to injury, and instead of standing against these abuses, top Puerto Rico Republican elected officials have been campaigning with Trump in battleground Florida. To win the presidency, you must win Florida. To win Florida you must win the Hispanic vote. To win the Hispanic vote you need to win the Puerto Rican vote. It is that simple.

Given these unholy alliances, it is therefore unsurprising that now, a so-called “substantial amendment” is being pushed through the local Housing Department that will erase any solar plus storage CDBG-DR incentive that could be open to all Puerto Ricans.

Author Javier Rúa-Jovet is chief policy officer of the Solar & Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico, and member of the Puerto Rican Academy of Jurisprudence & Law.

This “substantial amendment” is also deleting requirements to prioritize low-income and the elderly and communities without electrical power, promising that funds would be resurrected in a future CDBG mitigation round. 

And, in any case, at around $300 million, proposed budgets for solar+storage resiliency have simply ignored the calls for multi-billion funding by academics and even those of the former governor himself.

An estimated 20,000 Puerto Rican families have already become energy-resilient via solar+batteries, without government aid. Thousands more would have installed this lifesaving technology via CDBG solar funds.

They would have kept power through last year’s weekly brownouts, through this year’s earthquake-related blackouts and through the ongoing covid19 lockdowns, compounded with another highly active hurricane season, which will probably repeat next year. Clean solar energy would have kept the lights on, and it would have created thousands of good paying jobs. Solar would have secured life and quality of life.

Republicans continue acting as deniers of the severity of the energy resilience issue, deniers of Puerto Rico’s plight. A major Puerto Rican electoral turnout in Florida will evict the current White House resident and elect Biden. Under President Biden, disbursement of all these critical funds will finally happen: lifesaving action for Puerto Rican energy resiliency now, not lip service.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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