top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Beyond resilience: Puerto Rico’s urgent need for energy stability

LUMA Energy crews worked through the night to repair high-voltage lines at a transmission tower after a failure the operator said was caused by vegetation triggered a major blackout in June. (Facebook via LUMA Energy)

By Mariela Torres Cintrón

Special to The Star

With hurricane season underway, Puerto Rico finds itself in an intensifying pressure cooker of threats: fragile electrical infrastructure, LUMA Energy’s inefficient management, and escalating climate change impacts. This volatile mix erodes quality of life and poses direct public health dangers, with each blackout potentially becoming a medical crisis.

Amid this urgency, conflicting energy solutions have surfaced. Federal officials are advocating for solar panels, while local leaders are pushing for a broader focus on energy generation. This clash is unfolding as Puerto Rico residents prepare for what could be an active hurricane season, underscoring the potential of comprehensive energy solutions that can provide not just resilience, but true stability.

Puerto Rico’s electricity sector exemplifies the island’s infrastructure crisis. PREPA’s power generation capacity of 5,948 megawatts (MW) — equivalent to the electricity needed to power nearly 4 million average American homes — is heavily reliant on oil (63%) and natural gas (23%), and is ill-equipped for present and future challenges. This fossil fuel dependence drives up costs and leaves the system vulnerable to global market fluctuations and supply disruptions.

LUMA Energy’s privatized management has exacerbated these issues, failing to provide reliable service to 1.5 million customers. Frequent outages endanger lives, particularly for those relying on medical equipment. While the new climate change mitigation plan and renewable energy goals offer hope, potential delays until 2025-2050 leave Puerto Rico facing countless more blackouts.

The debate between solar panels and broader energy generation highlights the intricate balance between immediate needs and long-term sustainability. Puerto Rico urgently requires a comprehensive, resilient energy strategy that can withstand both chronic inefficiencies and acute shocks like hurricanes, emphasizing the importance of long-term planning.

Last month’s heatwave exposed Puerto Rico’s critical infrastructure vulnerabilities. Soaring temperatures pushed the fragile power grid to its limits, causing cascading blackouts as demand for cooling skyrocketed. This created a dangerous feedback loop, with each failure increasing strain on the system.

For vulnerable populations — the elderly, chronically ill, and young children — the loss of reliable cooling became life-threatening. Heat-related illnesses surged as indoor temperatures rose unchecked. Ironically, those most in need of climate control often lack resources for backup power or relocation.

This crisis starkly demonstrated Puerto Rico’s ill-preparedness for extreme weather events that climate change will make increasingly common. Each power failure during extreme heat isn’t just an inconvenience; it’s a dangerous reminder of the urgent need for climate-resilient infrastructure that provides stability, not just resilience.

Puerto Rico’s energy and infrastructure failures disproportionately impact vulnerable populations. With 21.3% aged 65 or older and 21.7% living with disabilities, a significant portion of residents are highly susceptible to power outages and extreme weather. The island’s 44,311 Medicare beneficiaries relying on electric medical devices face life-threatening risks during blackouts.

Economic realities exacerbate this vulnerability. With 42.7% living below the poverty level, nearly half of Puerto Ricans lack resources to prepare for or respond to emergencies. Backup power systems and quick relocation are often financially out of reach, forcing many to weather crises in dangerous conditions.

This inequity transforms inconveniences into life-threatening situations. Every outage that leaves a dialysis patient scrambling for treatment, every heatwave trapping low-income elderly in sweltering apartments, and every storm forcing disabled individuals to navigate emergencies without support represents a failure to protect the most vulnerable citizens.

Puerto Rico stands at a critical juncture where climate change, infrastructure vulnerability, and energy insecurity converge, demanding immediate and comprehensive action. The island needs more than resilience; it needs stability. The debates between solar panels and broader generation, between privatization and public control, must give way to a unified push for a resilient, equitable and sustainable energy future.

This transformation must prioritize:

1. Rapid transition to a diverse, decentralized renewable energy mix.

2. Significant investment in grid modernization and climate-resilient infrastructure.

3. Targeted support for vulnerable populations, including subsidized backup power for critical medical needs.

4. Integration of energy planning with economic development and poverty reduction strategies.

5. Enhanced emergency response capabilities and community-based preparedness.

The time for half-measures has passed. Every day without progress is another day Puerto Rico residents live under threat. The island’s leaders must recognize that energy security, climate resilience and social equity are inextricably linked challenges requiring bold, comprehensive solutions.

The people of Puerto Rico have demonstrated incredible resilience in the face of repeated crises. We deserve an energy system and infrastructure that matches that resilience — one that doesn’t just survive the next disaster but provides a stable foundation for prosperity and well-being.

The path forward is clear; what’s needed now is the political will and unified action to transform Puerto Rico’s energy landscape for all its residents, especially the most vulnerable. Moving beyond resilience to true stability is not just an aspiration; it’s an imperative for Puerto Rico’s future.

Mariela Torres Cintrón is an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus, and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project and AcademyHealth.

91 views0 comments


bottom of page