Methodist churches from the Roanoke and New River valleys are trying to raise $50,000 to buy solar panels for people in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
The idea came after the Raleigh Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke sent a mission team to Puerto Rico last year to help with re-building. Yes, more than a year after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017, there’s still clean-up and rebuilding to be done.
Characterize the federal government’s response to a stricken Puerto Rico however you like — adjectives are just words, but the numbers are more telling.
Shortly before the Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Harvey knocked out power to more than 300,000 customers in Texas, according to Utility Dive website. Maria knocked out power to virtually all of Puerto Rico — about 1.5 million customers. Harvey killed 106 people in the United States. The official death toll on Puerto Rico is now 2,975. That’s just shy of the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
And yet . . . the federal government sent more resources to Texas than to Puerto Rico — five times as many meals, four times as many tarps, three times as many personnel. President Trump attributed the difference to the fact that Puerto Rico is “an island surrounded by water, big water” — as if this were a nation that never mounted the D-Day invasion or put men on the moon and brought them back. More likely the difference is Texas is a state (a big and important one, too) and Puerto Rico isn’t.
If Puerto Rico were a state, it would be bigger than 21 others. Instead, Puerto Rico exists in a legal twilight zone. Its residents are Americans, whose men were subject to the military draft when there was such a thing. Its residents don’t pay federal income tax, either, but neither do they qualify for certain federal benefits at the same rates as other Americans. When it’s convenient to the mainland, we count Puerto Ricans as full and fellow Americans; when it’s not, we don’t.
Trump has to answer for the disproportionately weak response to Puerto Rico’s hurricane devastation, but both parties in Washington have a lot to answer for in general, going back more than a century. Republicans have always been clearer than Democrats about how to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status. Starting with their 1940 party platform all the way up to the one Trump ran on in 2016, Republicans have officially endorsed statehood and then done absolutely nothing toward making that happen. Democrats, by contrast, spent 172 words in their 2016 platform talking about Puerto Rico’s political status — and still couldn’t say clearly what it should be. Which is the greater failure? Does it matter?
In Washington, politicians are still arguing over how much aid Puerto Rico should get to recover from the hurricane. It’s a good thing Puerto Rico is not completely dependent on politicians.
Instead, thousands of linemen from about 60 private utilities across the country arrived in Puerto Rico to rebuild the power grid — including 70 from American Electric Power. That got the lights back on — after 11 months, the longest blackout in U.S. history — although the island’s electrical system remains fragile. That’s because the first priority was getting the electricity back on — not building a brand-new power grid that could better withstand a storm.
There are short-term goals and long-term goals. Power restoration was the short-term goal. Puerto Rico’s long-term goal is a lot more ambitious: It wants to generate 40% of its energy from renewables by 2025 and 100% by 2050. Puerto Rico doesn’t call that a “Green New Deal,” but that’s exactly what it is.
On the mainland, the “Green New Deal” has become political shorthand — and a political lightning rod. For Puerto Rico, though, it’s more a matter of economic necessity. Before the hurricane, virtually all the island’s energy had to be imported — 98% from petroleum, natural gas and coal, in that order. Only 2% came from renewables. That’s a lot of money going off the island, and a local economy that wasn’t creating much to replace it. Solar and wind energy isn’t free, but renewables are becoming a lot cheaper — which make the economics a lot more appealing. For Puerto Rico, the conversion to renewables isn’t an ideological preference but a bottom-line calculation.
“I’m pretty sure that this will be, by leaps and bounds, the quickest transition to renewables that’s ever happened anywhere on the planet,” P.J. Wilson, president of the Solar and Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico, told the website Vox. However, Puerto Rico’s goals are complicated by money and technology. Puerto Rico’s in debt (mainlanders haven’t been the only ones to mismanage the island). The power lines are old and unreliable, no matter what kind of energy is flowing through them. There also are politics aplenty involved. The island’s utility company owes $9 billion, but the cost of a modern “smart” power grid (like the ones Virginia utilities are getting ready to install) is estimated at $17.6 billion. There’s a bankruptcy judge in New York involved, a federal Oversight Board in Washington, and a whole capital of rival politicians who would like to experiment upon Puerto Rico the way they have ever since the United States acquired it from Spain in 1898.
Not surprisingly, the Trump administration takes a dim view of Puerto Rico’s green energy goals; it wants to see the island’s utility buy more natural gas from the Appalachian shale fields than rely on the sun and wind the island already has.
Many Puerto Ricans, though, aren’t waiting on the politicians. Spurred on by the nearly year-long blackout, they’re now installing so many rooftop solar systems that the companies that make them are having trouble keeping up with the demand. One German company told the Miami Herald that Puerto Rico is “definitely the biggest single market, truth be told, in the sovereign United States. It is a market that actually ranks up there with some European markets.” The switch to solar energy has been so rapid that the Puerto Rico may soon generate 18% of its energy from renewables — a stunning ninefold increase since Maria.
Irony: On the mainland, rooftop solar is considered a luxury and is associated with affluence. In Puerto Rico, it’s associated with poverty — and is considered self-reliance. But some help from fellow Americans would be nice.