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Becoming Prosumers Of Energy

by Ruth Santiago
February 16, 2019

This interview with Ruth Santiago, a lawyer who works with community and environmental groups in southeastern Puerto Rico, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

How do you think of energy democracy?

Energy democracy stems from the effects of energy coloniality and how certain jurisdictions have been used for extractive and exploitative practices and have become sacrifice zones for operations that create great wealth for other people over time.

How did you get involved in this work?

I got involved because of proximity. We have this saying in one of the groups I work with that says, "The environment unites us and identifies us." Not just the subtropical dry forest, and mangrove forest, and salt flats, and offshore cays, but also things that impact that environment – they also unite us and define us.

I was raised to a certain extent in Salinas. I spent my formative, adolescent years here. I was born in the South Bronx, my parents were part of the return migration to Southeastern Puerto Rico. They were from a municipality that's a little bit further east of Salinas, but very similar in many ways in terms of being part of the sugarcane monoculture, a high concentration of Afro descendent people, and real situations of struggle and survival. They decided to return to Puerto Rico when I was 12. I was raised along this Southeastern coast on and off from that time. One of my memories of growing up here as an adolescent was the Aguirre Power Complex being built in the early 70s. It was something that came to us. We did not come to the nuisances. Nuisance was built where we are.

The government of Puerto Rico tried Operation Bootstrap. Rapid industrialization and a very intense industrialization program that affected Guayama with industry coming in. First, light manufacturing and then the petrochemical industry. Then, pharmaceuticals, which are still very present. These energy plants were meant to serve more than the communities. These big, central station, fossil fuel plants were meant to provide energy to those heavy industrial uses that consumed and required a lot of energy.

What we saw in two places in Southern Puerto Rico, one here in Salinas and the other over in Guayanilla in Southwestern Puerto Rico, was how the power plants were set up very close to the petrochemical industries. We had the Phillips Puerto Rico Core Petro Refinery. Aguirre Power Complex was basically in service to that and other heavy industrial users. People were told they would get jobs. They said, "Oh, we're going to generate upwards of 2,000 jobs." People were a little skeptical and concerned about how that would impact the possibility of safe fishing at least. They were told it would not be impacted. Ultimately, what happened was Phillips did not generate anything close to 2,000 jobs and folded after a few decades, but did leave a terrible legacy of contamination to air, water, and land. People lost a lot of their ability to do the subsistence fishing even.

Aguirre Power Complex came in stages. They had two power plants in one. In 1972, they set up what was known as the Thermoelectric Plant. Again, people were told they’d get jobs from this. Again, the plant does not hire many local residents. It’s estimated there was 20-25% local hires, and the rest came from all over, anywhere but Salinas and Guayama. The same thing with the Combined Cycle units, because as I said, it's two plants in one.

At the dawn of the 20th century Puerto Rico got its first coal-burning power plant and the only coal-burning power plant that was established by AES. They're a Delaware corporation with their headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, but they do business all over the world. In November 2002, they started a brand-new, so called clean-coal power plant. It's been disastrous. Again, people were told, this is going to be beneficial in terms of stimulating the local economy and bringing down the electric rates. None of that happened. What has happened is that people are getting more and more exposed to pollutants and heavy metals and public health is being impacted.

Your work seems two-fold. One is dedicated to producing energy that is actually clean and that will not leave a legacy of toxicity. The other is in trying to invert the power structure of how that energy is produced and sold. Correct?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Can you talk about your work in both areas and how they come together?

We have done a lot of resistance work, and a lot of work to promote community alternatives on energy and sustainability issues. There's a long history of activism here. I became more active in energy issues around 2003. We started participating in the monitoring of the Aguirre Power Complex and how it impacts public health, air quality, and water. Both the sea water and the potable water. The only source of potable water here is the South Coast Aquifer. That was monitoring.

We started participating in different administrative proceedings with a group called Comite Dialogo Ambiental, the Environmental Dialogue Committee. Then we participated in proceedings against PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, but also the AES Corporation.

I've done both administrative proceedings and litigation in courts related to different impacts from those plants, and most recently a company called Excelerate Energy out of Texas was proposing to build what they call an offshore gas port and a marine natural gas pipeline, that we just defeated. It would have been running right through the middle of Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and impacted corals and seagrass beds and offshore cays and all kinds of things, and the ability of people to do subsistence fishing and ecotourism and otherwise just use and be in the environment.

We've done a huge amount of work with respect to the coal combustion residuals or coal ash waste related to the AES Power Plant. The coal ash waste is a concentration of heavy metals, toxic heavy metals that were being spread all over, and is now being accumulated at the AES Power Plant site in Guayama, Puerto Rico.

That summarizes the energy resistance work that we've done. In terms of going beyond resistance and seeking to build the solutions and the alternatives, we've done a lot of environmental education, both with Comite Dialogo Ambiental Inc. and another group, an umbrella organization called, Eco Development Initiative.

Prior to the hurricane in conjunction with IDEBAJO and a community board called Junta Comunitaria del Poblado Coqui, in Salinas, we helped start what is known as the Coqui Solar project. It's a community solar initiative. It was started with lots of workshops and consultation and collaboration with professors, like Efrain O’Neill from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, which is the technical campus here.

It was, for years, before the hurricane, quite a struggle to get people to understand, to want to move towards solar energy, especially rooftop solar communities. It was going very slow. We were certainly doing the education work and the policy work, but not getting very far on the ground in terms of actual implementation of the first steps, the pilot project for the solar community. But right after the hurricane when it became clear to, I think, everyone in Puerto Rico and probably anyone familiar with Puerto Rico that the current electric grid does not work for the people of Puerto Rico. People have been much more receptive to the Coqui Solar project and initiatives of solar communities and other alternatives to central station, fossil fuel generation.

Can you tell me how a solar community works?

That's something that's being developed right now. The way people in Coqui Solar envision it is people who have the appropriate rooftops, usually cement, which is not the case for everyone, are able to come together to think about and work on generating energy using PV systems on their rooftops. It's certainly much more than just everyone in the community having PV equipment. This is beyond just a technological solution. It's about the social agreements necessary to make that energy and that technology serve community needs in the most efficient way.

Are you seeing a lot of progress in new ways of approaching energy? From the community, but also from a municipal government level?

That's really hard to answer. Certainly with the mind set and attitudes. There's much more receptiveness to the things that we've been talking about for years about solar communities. That has definitely changed and there's a lot more interest and it's a very dynamic situation with respect to energy. After the hurricane, honestly, people realized we're basically on our own here and the government, local, federal, municipal, comes to help us. We have to figure out these solutions.

We're seeing a lot more on the formal scale. A group called ACONER, the Association of Renewable Energy Consultants and Contractors, say they're doing five to six times the number of installations they were prior to the hurricane.

Things have definitely changed. We don't know exactly how much. 

There is what can be called, lip service. A lot of lip service about renewable energy which is dangerous, especially with the government of Puerto Rico. They're saying they're adopting the 100% renewable energy goal for 2050, and I think 50% by 2040, but their actions are promoting lots of natural and fracked gas. It's a tricky situation in that sense because you hear everyone saying we adopt renewable energy, but not only are they putting the money elsewhere, they're also talking about a kind of renewable energy that's not community-based,.

What we're seeing is that the government is being pushed by every energy company you can imagine. It seems everyone has an interest in doing some kind of project here, including at utility scale. That it is not the same as the kind of alternatives we're talking about in terms of solar communities.

Why is this an urgent issue for you right now?

We saw here in Puerto Rico, that it's a matter of life or death. People need to take this into their own hands, energy by and for the people. Become more than just passive consumers but actual producers of energy and control their means of production.

We knew before the hurricanes, and we experienced it afterwards. This huge and deadly hurricane was compounded by this terrible electric infrastructure system. It's not serving the people of Puerto Rico in a real way. Maybe that was the best we could do at some point, but that's no longer the situation here and we an opportunity to do things differently. To do better. Much better.