2 Issues, 1 Solution – Power in Puerto Rico

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On January 19, 2020, the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, #UBLawResponds, drove to Salinas to meet with community expert Ruth (Tata) Santiago, and a young man named Hery. Salinas is a coastal town with similar beautiful sights to many coastal towns I’ve been to. However, one cannot walk around this beautiful town without hearing the deafening power plant that supplies the north of Puerto Rico with power.

I cannot even describe the noise produced by the plant. My attempt to describe it is deafening silence. But over our visit, it became something I got accustomed to. You cannot hear anything but the plant.

What stood out to me was something Hery said. He described how he went to New York City for a conference and could not sleep … because of how silent New York City was. As a New Yorker, before this visit I could not imagine a place being louder than “the city that never sleeps.” Salinas is that place. Hery and his neighbors have dealt with the constant noise of the plant daily, some like Hery for their entire lives.

But what is more disturbing is a simple legal fact. The noise produced by the plant is beyond the legal limit for decibel production. Additionally, generally, a plant like that would be required to return water back to a public water body from its cooling system is at a temperature of 90 degrees or less. This plant’s system has a special deal and puts water back into the ocean at 107 degrees, greatly disturbing the ecosystem.

This plant was also not built to sustain natural disasters. Many Puerto Ricans will be without power for an extended period of time if (or when) the plant fails.

One possible solution for Puerto Rico’s energy situation that we discussed with these local experts is solar power. However, while large solar farms would help Puerto Ricans become more energy resilient, these farms would take up valuable fertile land. Puerto Rico imports over 90% of their food supply. The land is needed for other uses.

As someone who is studying environmental and energy policy, I believe there must be a solution so that becoming resilient in one sector does not decrease resilience in another. As we discussed, at this point the most viable solution is placing solar panels on the roofs of individual homes. This would allow people to not only be energy consumers but also be energy producers. Such panels would have to be designed so that the only way they would not survive a natural disaster would be if the entire roof was lost.

A swift and affordable move to rooftop solar would allow the people of Salinas to enjoy real quiet, not just deafening silence. Additionally, it would allow citizens around Puerto Rico to have more land for local agriculture. The single solution of solar power could solve two of Puerto Rico’s roadblocks to resiliency and self-sufficiency.

#UBLawResponds will be writing a policy assessment based on our trip and our learning from the local communities. Please support our service-learning efforts here.

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