Attorney Ruth Santiago Discusses Solutions to Restore Puerto Rico

Written by Jordan Corey

Climate advocate and attorney Ruth Santiago came to Eastern Connecticut State University on Oct. 24 to discuss the environmental and electricity struggles faced by Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. During her University Hour presentation, Santiago detailed sustainable recovery plans and the issues that surround them.

Santiago began by explaining that various socioeconomic crises existed in Puerto Rico before the category-five hurricane, but became life threatening for many after the fact. A glaring setback is the island’s power grid made up of unreliable electric transmission lines, which, according to Santiago, bring no energy efficiency or storage. She says that nearly 100 percent of Puerto Rico’s energy consumption is from fossil fuels. Moreover, the territory’s debt crisis has historically prevented necessary improvements to the system, and poorer communities are disproportionately impacted.

With power plants located on the southern coast powering the entirety of Puerto Rico – despite its capital, San Juan, being located in the north – the current system is not only inadequately constructed, but also costs more for consumers. Puerto Ricans pay higher prices for electricity than most people in the United States. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has faced accusations of corruption in management, in addition to being effectively bankrupt.

Santiago called attention to possible solutions for progressing beyond both the detriment of the hurricane and the outdated power grid itself to avoid similar disasters in the future. An advocate for solar power, she works closely with the Coqui Solar project and is part of Queremos Sol (We Want Sun), a group that calls for clean and renewable energy through initiatives. “We’re not just substituting one technology for another, we’re trying to transform the way we relate to energy,” said Santiago, who believes that solar communities offer newfound control over energy use and production. “We think our proposals are much more transformative.”

Santiago emphasized the importance of getting Puerto Ricans engaged and informed on a community level as well. In order to truly progress, it can be argued that citizens need more of a sense of ownership when it comes to how they are being affected by the current power system. Implementing microgrids is another potential means of making energy usage more small-scale, giving electricity users a local source of supply that is usually attached to a centralized national grid but is able to function independently.

“Ultimately our goal is to achieve energy democracy,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of energy literacy work – understanding the different aspects of generation and how we can be more efficient, how we can conserve more, how we can have incentives for daytime use.”

To conclude, Santiago encouraged the audience to contact government representatives and utilize their voices in helping make changes in Puerto Rico. “We need a continuing labor of the Stafford Act” – a U.S. law designed to bring orderly federal assistance to state and local governments after a natural disaster – “so that any federal funds are allowed to be used for transformation of the grid, not just rebuilding the same thing that we have.”