CIALES - Yesterday, five members of the House Committee on Natural Resources focused their meetings in Puerto Rico on learning about the efforts to rebuild the power grid, which was out of service for long months after Hurricane María and that is essential for the island´s economic growth .
The federal lawmakers visited the Toro Negro solar energy community in Ciales, where they developed a a type of community project that could define Puerto Rico's energy future.
"This is the model of how to provide clean and sustainable energy," said Democrat Raúl Grijalva, chairman of the House Committee, who was as impressed as his colleagues by the system that 27 families developed in the area, a nature´s paradise.
Toro Negro was eight months in the dark after Hurricane María. The community decided they would never go through such hardships again and they organized and became independent from the Electric Power Authority (PREPA) grid.
Through donations from the Community Foundation, Somos Solar, Maximum Solar and Para la Naturaleza, these 27 residences have installed solar panels, batteries and the regulator that allows them to switch into PREPA´s grid when they need it.
The Community Foundation also supported the construction of a water tank. "Here, when the wind blew, power went away," said Justo Méndez Aramburu, founder of "Nuestra Escuela" (Our School), an alternative school that has a farm in the area where students take training workshops.
Jose "Tito" Figueroa, spokesman for the community, said that now they "feel safe" in the event of a hurricane.
Senate Vice President Larry Seilhamer and Democratic Popular Party (PPD) spokesman in the Senate, Eduardo Bhatia, invited the Committee members to the community. Instead of holding a meeting at the Capitol, they wanted them to learn first hand about the projects that should be promoted and financed.
Grijalva, Resident Commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González, Republican spokesman in the Committee, Rob Bishop, and Democrats Darren Soto and Rubén Gallego visited this community.
Seilhamer and Bhatia are the authors of the new public energy policy bill, which is to be approved at the beginning of this week and which, they say, will encourage projects such as the one in Toro Negro.
The two Puerto Rican senators agreed that the Natural Resources Committee can help Puerto Rico´s access to funds intended to rebuild its transmission and distribution system, for which the government hopes to obtain $ 16 billion in federal funds.
It will be key to promote community projects that involve solar energy and other renewable sources with these funds, they said.
Commissioner González explained that the plan to use the first $ 1.507 billion in funds through the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery program (CDBG-DR) of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allocates $ 35 million to community energy and water projects such as the one in Toro Negro.
In the action plan for the use of the second CDBG-DR funds - which totals $ 8.221 billion and was approved at the end of February - another $ 400 million package is directed for these purposes.
Seilhamer and Bhatia also told the members of the Committee about the Puerto Rican government’s request for the U.S. government to grant a 5 to 10 year waiver from Cabotage Rules for the transport of natural gas, facing the island’s aspiration to have a grid that based exclusively on renewable sources by 2050.
Under Cabotage Rules, cargo transportation must be done on U.S.-owned, U.S.-flagged, U.S.-built and U.S.-crewed ships. "There are no U.S. ships" to transport natural gas to Puerto Rico, insisted Seilhamer.
As soon as the 116th Congress began, however, the bipartisan leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wrote to the federal government opposing to the 10-year waiver requested by the government of Puerto Rico.
"It is urgent to make the transition (toward renewable energy), but it is one of the most difficult (proposals)," said Grijalva, referring to the bipartisan support to federal Cabotage Rules, regulated by the Jones Act of 1920.
The delegation also visited the Vanderbilt Hotel in Condado, where they met with PREPA executive director José Ortiz, and the representative of the government of Puerto Rico before the Oversight Board, Christian Sobrino, and members of PREPA’s governing board.
Ortiz said he used the session to update the members of the Natural Resources Committee on the fiscal plan, PREPA´s finances and the government's plan to transform the power grid.
Grijalva said he would send Ortiz details of his idea to create the role of "Inspector General" to oversee the process to rebuild the power grid and the use of federal funds. "It's not about managing the day to day," said Grijalva.