Six groups sue to stop green energy tenders they say threaten farmland
By The Star Staff
Six organizations sued the island government Monday to stop renewable energy tenders on farmland and land of high ecological value, which they assert are in violation of the Puerto Rico Land Use Plan and public policy laws.
In a mandamus request filed in local court in San Juan, the organizations want to stop the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (PREB), the Puerto Rico Planning Board, the Permits Management Office, and the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC by its Spanish acronym) from approving industrial energy projects in agricultural reserves. The plaintiff entities are the Boricuá Organization for Eco-Organic Agriculture Inc., the United Front for the Defense of the Lajas Valley Inc., the Environmental Dialogue Committee Inc., Puente de Williamsburg Inc. (Latino Climate Change Link), Sierra Club Puerto Rico and League of Cities of Puerto Rico Inc. In addition, they have the legal support of Earthjustice and the Resiliency Law Center.
The groups argued that public policy laws establish that disused landfills, previously contaminated land, parking lots, and roofs are suitable places for renewable energy projects.
However, the PREB has approved some 18 projects that will occupy 5,097.85 acres of land classified as Special Agricultural Reserve and Specially Protected Rustic Land that must be protected, according to the Puerto Rico Land Use Plan.
A few years ago, the PREB announced it was executing six tranches of tenders for renewable energy facilities and battery storage. It has conducted three so far.
The groups warned that “the consideration of probably more than 80 renewable energy industrial projects remains, without first identifying the location and suitable places” as required by the Energy Public Policy Law and the Energy Transformation and Relief Law.
“Despite the clear letter of the law, the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau has approved power purchase contracts for 18 renewable energy industrial projects that are intended to be located illegally in the Special Agricultural Reserve and will be considering some 80 additional industrial projects, without first identifying the suitable places under the law, without considering the location, without counting on the conclusions that the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC) must submit, and without excluding the Special Agricultural Reserve Lands,” the lawsuit reads.
The plaintiff groups denounced what they contend was the PREB’s lack of transparency for carrying out a separate and confidential process to implement the Integrated Resource Plan without disclosing the names of the projects, the physical address, location, magnitude, size of the farms, person or entity in charge and megawatts to be generated.
“All this information is public, but we had to go to court, and we managed to learn information about the 18 projects,” said Alfredo Vivoni of the United Front for the Defense of the Lajas Valley Inc. “There we discovered that everyone was breaking the law because they are impacting protected land.”
The groups warned about the loss of agricultural land used for renewables and food security risks.
“We must emphasize that almost no product can be planted productively under the [solar] plates, and the installation entails the destruction of these soils with the movements of the construction, even changing the hydrography,” said David Sotomayor, a soil science professor at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR)-Mayagüez Campus College of Agricultural Sciences.
He added that in 70 years (1935 to 2002), Puerto Rico lost around 1.3 million acres of land to various factors, mainly urban sprawl, according to data from the island Department of Agriculture and the Department of Geography of the UPR-Río Piedras Campus.
“These are lands that we will not recover, and it becomes essential on an island like ours that depends almost exclusively on the import of products to be able to feed ourselves so that more land is not lost because food security is threatened, particularly in times of crisis due to climate change and international aspects of the market,” Sotomayor said.
Federico Cintrón Moscoso, from Puente de Williamsburg Inc., noted that “the two services that are most affected by climate emergencies are access to energy and healthy food.”
“About 95% of the fossil fuel we use and over 80% of our food comes from abroad,” he said. “That is why, when we talk about climate adaptation, we insist on increasing our capacity to produce renewable energy and food locally. But these two activities cannot cancel each other out, as we are seeing in these industrial power projects. It is inconceivable that when all the studies show that the best location for solar energy is on the roofs of houses and previously impacted places, the government insists on developing them on agricultural land with high potential to produce food.”
In the lawsuit, they argued that the guidelines for the creation of the Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation, and Resilience Plan establish that it is necessary to “promote renewable or alternative energies taking advantage of spaces already altered by human activity, and thus minimize the unnecessary occupation of the soil.”
The organizations stated that all agencies, including the PREB and DDEC, must consider and apply the standards when identifying suitable places for industrial renewable energy projects.
“We favor renewable energy, but not to the detriment of lands of high ecological value and agricultural reserves in the largest productive places,” said Marissa Reyes from the Boricuá Organization for Eco-Organic Agriculture Inc.