Puerto Rico knows what it is like to have its light dimmed. In 2017, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the state-owned utility that largely controls power generation on the island, went bankrupt. Soon after, hurricanes Maria and Irma blew through, destroying the electrical grid and leaving much of Puerto Rico in darkness. Although officials declared power restored this August, service remains unreliable to this day.
The road to recovery is arduous. But today the island is on its way to a brighter future. The new energy policy proposed in the Puerto Rico legislature would make a long-term commitment to renewable and distributed energy, reducing reliance on imported fuels and building a resilient, modern electrical system. It can work. I know—because we have been doing it for years in Hawaii.
Our island communities have much in common. We share a legacy of electric grids run on imported oil—a system susceptible to the volatility of international oil markets and one that negatively affects our health and our natural resources. We also share a vulnerability to natural disasters like hurricanes, intensified by climate change, and the knowledge that when disaster hits, help from the mainland is far away.
In Hawaii, we began our journey toward a clean energy system 10 years ago, and passed our own 100% renewable policy in 2015. Currently our state’s electric system is 27% renewable, with Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island already at 34%, 44% and 56% respectively. The state of Hawaii is home to the top four utilities nationally in residential solar adoption. We are ahead of pace in achieving our goal of 30% reduction in energy demand by 2030. And we are still moving forward toward a 100% clean energy system.
Puerto Rico can learn from our experience. I served on the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission from 2012 until 2018, guiding the first stage of our energy transformation. In 2014, we issued the “Commission’s Inclinations on the Future of Hawaii’s Electric Utilities,” which set forth the strategic road map to achieve integration of renewable energy and transformation of the utilities’ business models with a diverse toolkit of both utility scale and distributed energy resources including photovoltaic systems (known as residential PV), energy efficiency, demand response, and energy storage. Puerto Rico, too, will need strategic resource planning and coordinated programs for energy efficiency and demand response to make meaningful change. The island’s chances of success in realizing the new energy policy’s visionary goals depends in no small measure on having regulatory oversight over the utilities—and having an energy regulator with the authority and the determination to ensure the utilities deliver on the policy’s promise.
Hawaii can learn from Puerto Rico as well. We narrowly missed a catastrophe this year when Hurricane Lane avoided a direct hit on our islands. But we all fear the natural disaster like Hurricane Maria that causes widespread destruction to our energy systems. We are far from mainland assistance and need to be sustainable and resilient to support ourselves. Puerto Rico has shown rapid growth in its solar power, as well as its storage and microgrid solutions. These are examples we can emulate. We recently passed new legislation to effectively incorporate microgrids into the larger electric grid, so they support each other and improve the affordability of these solutions. We are watching eagerly to see how shared microgrids, like the recent project in Toro Negro, Puerto Rico, can boost local resilience and provide more options for customers to own their energy resources.
The strength of island communities is built on our ability to work together and collaboratively addressing the challenges we face. We both share a rural agrarian history, and diverse communities built of different cultures brought together by a strong sense of place. The challenges posed by climate change, and the increased hurricane risks it brings, make this cooperation and collaboration all the more urgent. Our communities must take the lead in solutions that improve resilience while transitioning away from the pollution and economic dependence imposed by imported oil, gas, and coal.
It is inspiring to see Puerto Rico’s plans to join Hawaii and a growing number of states and cities across the country that are committing to 100% renewable energy, and setting significant standards for energy efficiency to help drive toward a clean energy future for generations to come. With Puerto Rico’s new proposed policy emphasizing clean and efficient use of energy, modern technology to run the grid, and the opportunity for people to own their own energy resources and to form energy cooperatives, a vital transformation is at hand. Together, our island communities can help show the world the way in building a more resilient and sustainable society.
Lorraine H. Akiba served as a commissioner on the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission from 2012 to 2018. She is currently president and CEO of LHA Ventures, a consultancy firm.