Puerto Rico is finally taking its energy system private. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed a bill Wednesday to sell pieces of the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The system’s been in shambles since Hurricane Maria hit last year, and this is seemingly the governor’s final attempt to salvage it.
This move doesn’t come as a surprise; Rosselló announced his intention to privatize parts of PREPA back in January. He signed the bill in front of a backdrop of solar panels in Isabela, Puerto Rico—an ode to what he hopes this law will further. “This plant is a microcosm of what we’re doing here today,” he said at the press conference, speaking of his idea “transform” the island’s energy system.
This bill-turned-law opens the door for the authority to accept contracts and offers from private companies to sell or transfer any assets. Even specific operations or services—like repairing power lines, for instance—are on the table for private entities to take on temporarily or permanently.
PREPA won’t become entirely private, but at this point it’s unclear what parts would remain public. It’ll likely depend on future negotiations. The privatization, meanwhile, will prioritize power generation and distribution.
The governor champions this law as a way to reduce energy costs for people on the island. “Today, our destiny will be one where the quality of life improves because the energy cost drops, the quality of energy improves, and the impact on the environment improves,” he said at the press conference.
But critics are worried by the fact that the law ignores PREPA’s whopping $8 billion debt. “The buyer can decide during negotiations it doesn’t want anything to do with the debt,” said Lionel Orama, a founding member of the National Institute of Energy and Sustainability at the University of Puerto Rico, to Earther. Ultimately, he thinks Boricuas will eat that cost. “The question is how,” he said.
Orama recognizes how wonderful the bill sounds on paper. Affordable energy access for all that prioritizes renewables? Fucking paradise compared to a shaky, outdated grid that sees a catastrophic blackout every so often. But he also points out the law doesn’t feature an enforcement mechanism to ensure that companies meet any requirements or standards previously set forth by the Puerto Rico Energy Commission. These have encouraged affordable renewable energy production and energy efficiency, as well as helped push forth microgrids.
Now the commission will have 15 days to evaluate any proposed contracts between companies and PREPA—a timeline that made Orama scoff.
“That’s a joke,” he said. “These contracts aren’t a few pages. They’re hundreds.”
The energy problem on the island is complicated. It didn’t begin with Hurricane Maria; it only got worse. For Orama, selling the authority responsible for it off is more of a band-aid than a solution. If a government didn’t find it economically feasible to return power to a community after the hurricane—the grid remains shaky, and some mountain towns still don’t have power—how can the public expect a private company to do so?
“Now, there are going to be people who won’t have power because it won’t be convenient for the company,” Orama speculated.
Of course, we can’t know what the future energy landscape will look like until the contracts start rolling in. But to Orama and many others? Energy—like water and sewage—is a public service. And such services lose that privileged essence when they enter private hands.