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Oxfam calls on Congress to direct resources to restore power to Puerto Rico

By on May 22, 2018

SAN JUAN – England-based charity Oxfam International is calling on the U.S. Congress to restore electric power to Puerto Rico residents who remain without service since hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island.

The large British charity, whose stated mission is “to end the injustice of poverty,” is also asking for the U.S. government to help rebuild the island’s grid by investing in more resilient power systems such as microgrids and solar, and to “rely on local expertise in Puerto Rico in planning for long-term solutions.”

Referencing the May 8 Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources’ hearing to examine the status of Puerto Rico’s electric grid and proposals for its future operation, Oxfam wrote that it “is the exact right moment to question the grid itself,” as the island is “still struggling to rebuild a variety of infrastructure systems that were devastated by the historic storm last September, it’s also getting ready to face a new hurricane season,” which officially begins June 1.

“Honestly, while we welcome efforts to repair the grid, we’re also worried that it is not being built back in a truly sustainable way,” Brenda Guzmán, program officer in San Juan for the poverty-focused group of charities, was quoted. “We’re concerned that the work so far was just for the interim and patched back together–it won’t be adequate to stand up to hurricane-force winds, which are just around the corner. We need to move quickly into the long-term rebuilding phase, as the short-term measures won’t be sufficient.”

It is estimated that some 30,000 people in Puerto Rico and the island-municipalities of Vieques and Culebra are still without power. The confederation of 20 independent charities is concerned that many communities are still getting power from generators “rather than the grid,” saying that “not only is this costly, the constant diesel fumes impact air quality and exacerbate respiratory problems.” It also pointed to the continued local and island-wide blackouts.

Among the alternative options mentioned to rebuild with the island’s resiliency in mind are using solar power and harvesting rain, with Guzmán adding that critical infrastructure systems such as water and energy should to be relocated away from floodways and coastal areas subject to erosion and the effects of sea level rise. “This applies to a large amount of housing stock as well,” she added.

The view from Palmarejo, in Villalba, Puerto Rico, where Oxfam distributed water filters to families recovering from Hurricane Maria is seen in this screen capture of (Coco McCabe/Oxfam)

“It’s imperative that the federal government provide adequate funds and effort to restore power to all customers in Puerto Rico. US citizens in Puerto Rico deserve the same reliable provision of electricity that is provided to customers in every state on the mainland.

“At the same time, it’s vital to consider building systems that can withstand any future blows. In December, the Puerto Rico Energy Resiliency Working Group released a report that recommended a coordinated system of micro-grids and other technologies to optimize the transmission and distribution of energy, as well as further investment in renewable sources such as solar.

“Puerto Ricans should be leading and engaged with planning. For example, the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission has been working with local leaders across Puerto Rico to develop recommendations in the areas of energy, economic development, education, health and social services, natural and physical infrastructure, and housing,” listed Oxfam in its call to Congress.

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