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FEMA is sued over rebuilding Puerto Rico's power grid without focusing on renewables

Community groups in Puerto Rico worry that the agency will use billions in federal funds to finance “projects that lock Puerto Ricans into decades of fossil-fuel dependence.”
Solar panels on the roof of businesses in Castaner, Puerto Rico, Nov. 14, 2022.
Solar panels on the roof of businesses in Castaner, Puerto Rico, in 2022. Alejandro Granadillo / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The federal government’s disaster response agency is being sued over its plans to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid in a way that limits a transition to renewable energy and extends the lifespan of current fossil-fuel dependent plants, according to conservation and community groups.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation nonprofit in Washington, and eight Puerto Rican environmental groups filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Washington.

The groups allege that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has failed to consider rooftop solar energy systems as well as other forms of distributed renewable energy for projects intended to provide electricity to vulnerable communities.

FEMA and other federal agencies are expected to invest more than $12 billion to permanently rebuild the grid that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. For the past five years, the patched-up grid has been acting up, causing blackouts and brownouts.

Against this background, power customers in Puerto Rico have been subjected to seven electric rate increases over the last year, even though they already pay about twice as much as mainland U.S. customers.

Unreliable and expensive electricity has prompted a still small but growing number of Puerto Ricans to transition to renewable energy.

The thousands of Puerto Rican homeowners who have installed solar panels on their roofs support preliminary findings of a community-driven study known as PR100 from the U.S. Department of Energy, and funded by FEMA, that concluded that Puerto Rico should prioritize rooftop solar systems and microgrids to reach its renewable energy goals.

According to the study, microgrids and smaller distributed systems improve the overall resiliency of the island’s power system, mainly because it recovers more quickly after disasters.

But with permanent reconstruction of the devastated power grid on the horizon, the community groups in Puerto Rico that are suing FEMA worry that the agency will use billions in federal funds to finance “projects that lock Puerto Ricans into decades of fossil-fuel dependence,” they said in a statement.

A FEMA spokesperson told NBC News that it “does not comment on active litigation.” In the past, the agency has said it repairs old power infrastructure in responding to immediate needs during emergencies.

Currently, less than 4% of power generation on the island comes from renewable energy.

Puerto Rico is now in a race to comply with a federal agreement and local policies that say 40% of electricity must come from renewable energy sources by 2025, with the goal of achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2050.

“FEMA has a unique opportunity to transform Puerto Rico’s electrical system into a more resilient one that protects Puerto Ricans from future hurricanes,” said Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York, who is Puerto Rican, adding that the agency "can do much more to seriously consider distributed renewable energy alternatives and their long-term benefits for Puerto Rico."

"The best use of disaster funds, and the pursuit of environmental justice for the island, calls for this course of action,” she said in a statement.