Puerto Rican authorities have hired a natural gas company to operate the island’s publicly-owned fleet of fossil fuel power plants, despite the commonwealth facing increasing pressure to rapidly transition its aging energy system to renewable sources.
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced Wednesday that his government had signed a contract with New Fortress Energy, a New York-based company that currently supplies the territory with liquefied natural gas, or LNG. The company has already generated a series of controversies in Puerto Rico. Soon, New Fortress could manage contracts to purchase gas from itself on behalf of the island’s residents.
Environmental and consumer advocates warned that the contract, which was negotiated in secret and remained confidential until after it was signed, will hamper the island’s efforts to phase out fossil fuels and drive electricity costs higher.
“You’re bringing another private interest entrenched in the fossil fuel industry that is going to have a political and economic interest in continuing to sell fossil fuels to Puerto Rico,” said Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst at CAMBIO, a Puerto Rican environmental advocacy group. “It’s hard to see how that’s not going to set back the renewable energy goals.”
Puerto Rican law requires the island’s Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, to get 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. Last year, 97 percent came from fossil fuels.
In a Wednesday press conference, Pierluisi said the privatization of the power plants would cut costs and would help the island’s transition to renewable energy. He pointed to incentives in the contract that would reward New Fortress for reducing fuel use and operational costs.
The deal is part of a multi-year effort to privatize the island’s energy system. PREPA transferred operations of the distribution and transmission network to a private company in 2020.
The change also comes as federal agencies are preparing to spend billions to help strengthen the island’s power grid after it was devastated by hurricanes in 2017. Clean energy advocates have been lobbying to use the federal money—more than $12 billion in total—to build a greener, more resilient system.
“It’s sort of a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a grid that is in the public interest,” said Ruth Santiago, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and a lawyer with Comité Diálogo Ambiental, a Puerto Rican advocacy group. “We have the opportunity to do that with this funding, and we shouldn’t go backsliding into a 20th-century grid.”
Last year, federal agencies signed an agreement with Puerto Rico’s government to try to align that spending with the island’s renewable energy goals, which include reaching 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050. This week, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory released a report that grew out of that agreement. It said the island has more than enough sun and wind resources to power its grid, but that because there is little available land for large-scale projects, Puerto Rico should focus on building smaller, distributed systems such as rooftop solar.
That recommendation aligns with what Santiago and other advocates have been arguing for years. But she said the contract with New Fortress Energy is the latest sign that PREPA instead appears to continue to favor fossil fuels.
PREPA did not reply to requests for comment.
Advocates also slammed the contract’s secrecy. By law, contracts administered by the Puerto Rico Public Private Partnerships Authority remain confidential until they are signed by the governor. Local media had reported earlier this month that the authority and PREPA had already approved a contract with New Fortress that was awaiting the governor’s signature, but officials did not confirm the company’s identity.
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New Fortress has drawn criticism since it arrived in Puerto Rico. In 2019, New Fortress won a contract to convert two units at a San Juan power plant to burn natural gas, in addition to fuel oil, and to sell gas to those units from an LNG import terminal. Environmental groups condemned that contract, saying PREPA had granted unfair advantages to New Fortress, including holding extensive meetings “outside the normal contract process.”
In 2021, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees most LNG terminals, said that New Fortress had failed to obtain the necessary approvals before building its import project. FERC ordered the company to apply and has yet to issue a ruling, but it allowed New Fortress to continue operating while the application is pending.
PREPA is also currently seeking more than $34 million from New Fortress to compensate for several periods over the last two years when the company failed to deliver gas to the power plant. PREPA had to instead buy diesel fuel, which is generally more expensive than gas, and has argued that the company should pay the costs.
New Fortress did not reply to requests for comment. In the FERC case, it has argued that its import facility was not subject to the commission’s jurisdiction.
New Fortress Energy was founded in 2014 with a mission to provide clean, affordable power to developing nations. Today, it operates LNG import terminals and power plants in Jamaica and Brazil and is developing projects in several other countries in Latin America, Asia and Ireland, according to its website.
In a 2019 investor presentation, the company said it planned to establish “beachheads” in markets with expected demand for LNG and would “aggregate demand” across power, industrial and transportation markets. In Puerto Rico, the company will now be in a position to potentially increase demand for its own product.
Under the contract, a subsidiary of New Fortress Energy will have the authority to operate, maintain and decommission 12 publicly-owned power plants for 10 years, and to manage all existing contracts of those facilities. PREPA will remain the owner of the plants, but will pay New Fortress a base rate of $22.5 million per year, plus up to $100 million annually in bonus payments based on a set of incentives, including safety and environmental performance, and cutting costs.
Tomas Torres-Placa, the consumer representative on PREPA’s board, cast the sole vote against the contract. Among the reasons he cited was that these annual payments would drive the authority’s costs higher, potentially forcing it to raise rates.
As an example, he pointed to the previous privatization of the transmission system, which was also meant to lower costs and improve performance. Since privatization, however, the system has had problems with reliability, and rather than driving costs down, Torres-Placa said, privatization has driven them higher.