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Puerto Rico is our Future

September 28, 2017

News reports tell of the devastation left by a direct hit from Category 4 Hurricane Maria. Puerto Ricans already coping with damage from Hurricane Irma, which grazed the island just days before, were slammed with an even stronger storm on September 20, bringing more than a foot of rain and maximum sustained winds of at least 140 miles per hour. There is still no electricity—and likely won’t be for weeks or months—in this U.S. territory of 3.4 million people, many of whom also lack running water. Phone and internet service is likewise gone. Nearly all of Puerto Rico’s greenery has been blown away, including trees and food crops. A major dam is leaking and threatening to give way, endangering the lives of tens of thousands. This is a huge unfolding tragedy. But it’s also an opportunity to learn lessons, and to rebuild very differently.

Climate change no doubt played a role in the disaster, as warmer water generally feeds stronger storms. This season has seen a greater number of powerful, land-falling storms than the past few years combined. Four were Category 4 or 5, and three of them made landfall in the U.S.—a unique event in modern records. Puerto Rico is also vulnerable to rising seas: since 2010, average sea levels have increased at a rate of about 1 centimeter (0.4 inches) per year. And the process is accelerating, leading to erosion that’s devastating coastal communities.

Even before the storms, Puerto Rico’s economy was in a tailspin. It depends largely on manufacturing and the service industry, notably tourism, but the prospects for both are dismal. The island’s population is shrinking as more and more people seek opportunities in the continental U.S.. Puerto Rico depends entirely on imported energy sources—including bunker oil for some of its electricity production, plus natural gas and coal. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is a law unto itself, a monopoly that appears mismanaged (long close to bankruptcy), autocratic, and opaque. Over 80 percent of food is imported and the rate of car ownership is among the highest in the world (almost a car for each islander!).

To top it off, Puerto Rico is also in the throes of a debt crisis. The Commonwealth owes more than $70 billion to creditors, with an additional $50 billion in pension obligations. Puerto Rico’s government has been forced to dramatically cut spending and increase taxes; yet, despite these drastic measures, the situation remains bleak. In June 2015, Governor Padilla announced the Commonwealth was in a “death spiral” and that “the debt is not payable.” On August 3 of the same year, Puerto Rico defaulted on a $58 million bond payment. The Commonwealth filed for bankruptcy in May of this year after failing to raise money in capital markets.

A shrinking economy, a government unable to make debt payments, and a land vulnerable to rising seas and extreme weather: for those who are paying attention, this sounds like a premonition of global events in coming years. World debt levels have soared over the past decade as central banks have struggled to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis. Climate change is quickly moving from abstract scenarios to grim reality. World economic growth is slowing (economists obtusely call this “secular stagnation”), and is likely set to go into reverse as we hit the limits to growth that were first discussed almost a half-century ago. Could Puerto Rico’s present presage our own future?

If so, then we should all care a great deal about how the United States responds to the crisis in Puerto Rico. This could be an opportunity to prepare for metaphoric (and occasionally real) storms bearing down on everyone.

It’s relatively easy to give advice from the sidelines, but I do so having visited Puerto Rico in 2013, where I gave a presentation in the Puerto Rican Senate at the invitation of the Center for Sustainable Development Studies of the Universidad Metropolitana. There I warned of the inevitable end of world economic growth and recommended that Puerto Rico pave the way in preparing for it. The advice I gave then seems even more relevant now:

  • Invest in resilience. More shocks are on the way, so build redundancy in critical systems and promote pro-social behavior so that people’s first reflex is to share and to help one another.
  • Promote local food. Taking advantage of the island’s climate, follow the Cuban model for incentivizing careers in farming and increase domestic food production using permaculture methods.
  • Treat population decline as an opportunity. Lots of people will no doubt leave Puerto Rico as a result of the storm. This represents a cultural and human loss, but it also opens the way to making the size of the population of the island more congruent with its carrying capacity in terms of land area and natural resources.
  • Rethink transportation. The island’s current highway-automobile dominance needs to give way to increased use of bicycles, and to the provision of streetcars and and light rail. An interim program of ride- and car-sharing could help with the transition.
  • Repudiate debt. Use aid money to build a sharing economy, not to pay off creditors. Take a page from the European “degrowth” movement. An island currency and a Commonwealth bank could help stabilize the economy.
  • Build a different energy system. Patching up the old PREPA electricity generating and distribution system would be a waste of money. That system is both corrupt and unsustainable. Instead, invest reconstruction funds in distributed local renewables and low-power infrastructure.

These recommendations met with a polite response in 2013, but there was little subsequent evidence of a dramatic change of direction. That’s understandable: people tend to maintain their status quo as long as it’s viable. However, when people are in dire straits, they’re more likely to listen to unconventional advice. And when denial is no longer possible, they’re more likely to face reality.

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein described how free-market policy wonks and neoliberal economists—and the financial and corporate interests that back them—look for moments of crisis as opportunities to trap countries in a cycle of massive infrastructure projects, rising consumption, and debt. No doubt neoliberal vultures are readying to swoop down on Puerto Rico at this very moment with their brand of “aid.” The government and people of the island will have some important choices to make in the coming weeks—whether to double down on infrastructure investments that lock them into a brittle and unsustainable way of life, or to break out in a different direction. They might take inspiration from Greensburg, Kansas—a town that was devastated by a powerful tornado in 2007 and chose to rebuild as “the greenest town in America.”

Obviously, the Puerto Rican people have immediate needs for food, water, fuel, and medical care. We mainland Americans should be doing all we can to make sure that help reaches those in the throes of crisis. But Puerto Ricans—all Americans, indeed all humans—should be thinking longer-term about what kind of society is sustainable and resilient in this time of increasing vulnerability to disasters of all kinds.

  • Maria

    Once again, Richard has clearly laid out the situation. Puerto Rico has a year-round growing season and gets lots of sun–and could move way beyond the current vulnerability resulting from centralized, outmoded energy, food, and transport systems. Anything else would be just plain nuts. Or capitalism.

  • William Rees

    Humans socially construct their ‘realities’ (actually just their perceptions) and then act out of these social constructs as if they were real. This helps explain the behaviour of everyone from suicide bombers to climate change deniers and believers in continuous material growth. Of course, any social construct may be dangerously wrong-headed but it often takes direct experience of catastrophe to shatter an ill-conceived illusion. Does this mean we have to wait until Washington and New York look like post-Maria Puerto Rico before we can adopt social and economic models that conform to the biophysical realities within which the economy and society actually operate?

  • Lily O’Loughlin

    It might.

  • A great article by Richard Heinberg about how Puerto Rico could and should be used as a test case to make the changes which will be required all over the world if our species is to continue to exist. Excellent advise and a superb opportunity to show that humans still have a capacity to think and act rationally but will it be pursued; absolutely not! It’s so damn hard to keep predicting that ignorance, stupidity, greed and corruption will win out over the alternatives . . . but it will . . . every time.

  • Money nerd

    Just imagine the chaos if Puerto Rico had been a cashless society and everything you needed to do required an internet connection… Oh wait… :O

  • Thanks for commenting, Bill. I agree. It’s likely that we won’t do much proactively to conform with Earth’s limits until those limits smack us in the face. The best we can do at this point is to come up with the responses that will make the most sense at that point and get them road-tested so they are ready to scale up. Minimize the casualties, preserve the best of what we have achieved, and plant the seeds of a culture worthy of survival.

  • getrealbuddy

    Build a different energy system. Patching up the old PREPA electricity generating and distribution system would be a waste of money. That system is both corrupt and unsustainable. Instead, invest reconstruction funds in distributed local renewables and low-power infrastructure.

    Really?

    Germany’s Expensive Gamble on Renewable Energy :
    Germany’s electricity prices soar to more than double that of the USA because when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind does not blow they have to operate and pay for a completely separate back up system that is fueled by lignite coal http://www.wsj.com/articles/germanys-expensive-gamble-on-renewable-energy-1409106602

    Why Germany’s nuclear phaseout is leading to more coal burning

    Between 2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW of new coal fired power stations. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The expected annual electricity production of these power stations will far exceed that of existing solar panels and will be approximately the same as that of Germany’s existing solar panels and wind turbines combined. Solar panels and wind turbines however have expected life spans of no more than 25 years. Coal power plants typically last 50 years or longer. At best you could call the recent developments in Germany’s electricity sector contradictory. https://carboncounter.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/why-germanys-nuclear-phaseout-is-leading-to-more-coal-burning/

    Germany Runs Up Against the Limits of Renewables

    Even as Germany adds lots of wind and solar power to the electric grid, the country’s carbon emissions are rising. Will the rest of the world learn from its lesson? After years of declines, Germany’s carbon emissions rose slightly in 2015, largely because the country produces much more electricity than it needs. That’s happening because even if there are times when renewables can supply nearly all of the electricity on the grid, the variability of those sources forces Germany to keep other power plants running. And in Germany, which is phasing out its nuclear plants, those other plants primarily burn dirty coal. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601514/germany-runs-up-against-the-limits-of-renewables/

  • getrealbuddy

    How Much Battery Storage Does a Solar PV System Need?

    Blowout Week 70 featured Tesla’s new 7 kWh and 10 kWh lithium-ion battery storage units. Will they allow households with rooftop solar PV systems to store enough surplus solar power to fill domestic demand throughout the year without the need to import grid power when the sun isn’t shining? It all depends on how much storage is needed and how much it costs, and in this post I present ball-park estimates of storage requirements and costs for domestic rooftop solar installations

    A solar PV system on the Equator does not need large amounts of storage because solar generation doesn’t change much through the year and because the solar cycle is only six months rather than a year long. The total storage requirement is 48 kWh, equivalent to 3.5 days of average generation, and this can be filled with five Tesla 10kWh wall units costing 5 X $3,500 = $17,500, exclusive of installation. This, however, still more than doubles the cost of the system. (Installation costs for the solar panels would be about $15,000 assuming $4,000 per installed kilowatt and 3.8 kW installed).

    Rooftop solar system at latitude 20 north

    Figure 3 plots the data for this latitude. Even though we are still in the tropics the storage requirement increases significantly. To fill winter demand the household now has to store 285 kWh of surplus summer generation, requiring 29 Tesla 10kWh wall units costing $101,500.

    Rooftop solar system at latitude 40 north

    Figure 4 plots the data for this latitude. To fill winter demand the batteries now have to store 676 kWh of surplus summer generation, requiring 68 Tesla 10kWh wall units costing $238,000.

    Rooftop solar system at latitude 60 north

    Figure 5 plots the data. To meet winter demand at this latitude the batteries have to store 1,522 kWh of surplus summer generation, requiring 153 Tesla 10kWh wall units costing $535,500 and weighing 15.3 tons:

    http://euanmearns.com/how-much-battery-storage-does-a-solar-pv-system-need/

  • getrealbuddy

    Oh and btw – how is something that is made by refining metals in a factory in China using finite materials — then shipped around the world…

    To be considered sustainable/green?

    Now if someone can invent a tree that produces solar panels — and batteries — then we have ourselves a revolution!!!

  • getrealbuddy

    Anyone want to go green? Then stop breeding like rats!!!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQQZf5bcwq4

  • getrealbuddy

    Does the sun shine at night?

    What about when it rains?

    So what happens then?

    Ask Germany – they tried it — and they now have the most expensive electricity in the OECD.

    Wanna know why?

    Well I will tell you. Because they had to build a large number of coal fired plants to provide electricity when the sun isn’t shining.

    So they paid for TWO generation systems.

    Coal fired plants are NOT like light bulbs – you cannot just flick a switch — they have to always be running — they never get shut off.

    So you are burning coal all the time — and ramping up hard when the sun is not shining.

    Here you go – the places with the most ‘renewable energy’ have the highest costs:

    https://gailtheactuary.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/euan-mearns-europe-electric-price.png

  • getrealbuddy

    Now imagine what the cost per KW hour looks like if you start to add batteries to this equation.

  • getrealbuddy

    Good luck with that haha

    Renewable energy ‘simply won’t work’: Top Google engineers

    Two highly qualified Google engineers who have spent years studying and trying to improve renewable energy technology have stated quite bluntly that whatever the future holds, it is not a renewables-powered civilisation: such a thing is impossible.

    Both men are Stanford PhDs, Ross Koningstein having trained in aerospace engineering and David Fork in applied physics. These aren’t guys who fiddle about with websites or data analytics or “technology” of that sort: they are real engineers who understand difficult maths and physics, and top-bracket even among that distinguished company.

    Even if one were to electrify all of transport, industry, heating and so on, so much renewable generation and balancing/storage equipment would be needed to power it that astronomical new requirements for steel, concrete, copper, glass, carbon fibre, neodymium, shipping and haulage etc etc would appear.

    All these things are made using mammoth amounts of energy: far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a renewables future rely on implicitly, we would wind up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewables farms – and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them and so on.

    The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.

    In reality, well before any such stage was reached, energy would become horrifyingly expensive – which means that everything would become horrifyingly expensive (even the present well-under-one-per-cent renewables level in the UK has pushed up utility bills very considerably).

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/11/21/renewable_energy_simply_wont_work_google_renewables_engineers/

  • getrealbuddy

    Replacement of oil by alternative sources

    While oil has many other important uses (lubrication, plastics, roadways, roofing) this section considers only its use as an energy source.

    The CMO is a powerful means of understanding the difficulty of replacing oil energy by other sources. SRI International chemist Ripudaman Malhotra, working with Crane and colleague Ed Kinderman, used it to describe the looming energy crisis in sobering terms.[13] Malhotra illustrates the problem of producing one CMO energy that we currently derive from oil each year from five different alternative sources. Installing capacity to produce 1 CMO per year requires long and significant development.

    Allowing fifty years to develop the requisite capacity, 1 CMO of energy per year could be produced by any one of these developments:

    4 Three Gorges Dams,[14] developed each year for 50 years, or
    52 nuclear power plants,[15] developed each year for 50 years, or
    104 coal-fired power plants,[16] developed each year for 50 years, or
    32,850 wind turbines,[17][18] developed each year for 50 years, or
    91,250,000 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels[19] developed each year for 50 years

    The world consumes approximately 3 CMO annually from all sources. The table [10] shows the small contribution from alternative energies in 2006.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_mile_of_oil

  • getrealbuddy

    Richard… now you are a bright guy. In fact The End of Growth is an outstanding book.

    You obviously MUST know that renewable energy is a crock of sh it. A 7 year old who had not been indoctrinated into the Cult of Green could be made to understand a world powered by solar and wind is IMPOSSIBLE.

    So what happened to you along the way?

    I assume your bills are being paid by the renewable energy industry.

    Hey – everyone has to eat in the run up to The Great Starvation that is coming.

    But come on admit it — you know this is all nonsense. Surely you must.

  • Mary VonZastrow

    Puerto Rico has a bit of tidal energy to harvest.

  • Mary VonZastrow

    I’ve been thinking and you, getrealbuddy, should not have been born. Such a tax on the planet, the resources, the infrastructure…

  • John G

    So what do you suggest, continue burning fossil fuels at the current rate? The conservative projections from climate science call that the 8.5 RCP, and say that will kill much of the life on Earth, and flood many coastal cities by the end of the century.

  • Caffined

    Even if getrealbuddy had not been born, the reality of those facts would still be the same.
    And remember, you are supposed to play the ball , not the man.!
    Or, if you prefer…”Dont shoot the messenger”
    …just because you dont like the message !

  • Mary VonZastrow

    Indeed. I was trolling

  • Joe Clarkson

    A tree already produces solar panels and incorporates its own energy storage system.