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As Elon Musk Proposes Taking Over Power Authority, Puerto Ricans Demand Community-Owned Solar Power

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While in Puerto Rico this past weekend, Democracy Now! spoke to Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, the head of UTIER, the electrical workers’ union in Puerto Rico, about Elon Musk’s proposal to make Puerto Rico the model of sustainable energy. We also visited the Casa Sol Bed and Breakfast in San Juan, which runs entirely on solar power.

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AMY GOODMAN: So, as the governor announced they were going to try to cancel this Whitefish Energy contract, on Sunday, we were in the offices of Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo. He is the head of UTIER, the electrical workers’ union in Puerto Rico. We were asking him about Elon Musk’s proposal to make Puerto Rico a model of sustainable energy. I asked him how to rebuild the devastated grid, if it’s possible, in a more sustainable way, and whether solar power has to mean privatization.

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] First, the complexity of the electrical system of Puerto Rico, it’s a totally isolated system. A system with a large amount of demand poses a major challenge in terms of looking at the possibility of solar power for powering the whole country. It’s very complex. It requires many studies, a lot of analysis, many evaluations. And the people of Puerto Rico can’t wait for all of that right now. Now, that doesn’t mean that Puerto Rico doesn’t have to look very seriously at the possibility of the transformation towards solar power. Nonetheless, the transformation that UTIER believes is most appropriate is—are solar communities. The communities themselves should appropriate that system. It’s not that we will become a commodity for renewable solar energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you interested in meeting with Tesla, Elon Musk or his representatives to figure out what a solar solution or a sustainable solution would be for Puerto Rico?

ÁNGEL FIGUEROA JARAMILLO: [translated] Yes. Yes, of course. Of course, yes. We have to meet and search for alternatives to transform the country. This doesn’t mean that we’re against—I mean, in favor of this becoming privatized. I believe that we have to meet and have a dialogue. We have to search for alternatives. But we are very clear: All the alternatives have to be owned by the community.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, the head of UTIER, the electrical workers’ union in Puerto Rico.

Well, when we were in Puerto Rico, just before we got to his office on Saturday night, we stayed in an apartment. Like most of the country, it had no electricity. When we got there in the middle of the night, it was dark. But just next door, there was a bed and breakfast that did have electricity, because it was powered entirely by solar. This is Tisha Pastor, who runs the Casa Sol Bed and Breakfast in Old San Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a bed and breakfast here in Calle Sol?

TISHA PASTOR: , we have a bed and breakfast in Calle Sol. It’s a sustainable building, so we have solar panels. And we have a well that we have from 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water, clean water, because we have filters that clean that water. And some of them came from the roof, a little bit from the roof, the water.

AMY GOODMAN: So you got a lot of water during the hurricane.

TISHA PASTOR: Yeah, yeah. We’ve been working since two weeks and a half or three, receiving like firemen from New York, people who wanted to come and help. The first week was for neighbors that couldn’t live without any water or electricity, so they need a respiratory thing to sleep. And we helped the neighborhood with our fridge to reserve water and stuff and like cooling their water.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have solar panels?

TISHA PASTOR: We have solar panels.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you show us?

TISHA PASTOR: . We have 30 solar panels. And we have the solar panels here. And because of that, we can receive people, and we can help the community as much as we can. We do kind of a—everybody came here, can take the ice, take the water and put the ice on the fridge, and, in the afternoon, can take it back home. So we help the community as much as we can.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, now there isn’t clean water in this neighborhood, except for what you have. And there’s no electricity, except for what you have.

TISHA PASTOR: Well, there is—we don’t have electricity, but now we have clean water. Since two days ago, they fixed our pumps from—for the neighborhood. And now we have the water. At least we have water, since two days ago.

AMY GOODMAN: But you have electricity because of the solar panels—

TISHA PASTOR: , we have—

AMY GOODMAN: —not because of the city.

TISHA PASTOR: No, not because of the city, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. And the water, would you drink it?

TISHA PASTOR: Here, yeah, because we have filters. And with the filters, we can drink the water, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Tisha Pastor, who runs Casa Sol Bed and Breakfast in Old San Juan. So, right next to her, we stayed, and there was no electricity, as in most of the island, Juan. But this issue of can a sustainable grid be built, and does it necessarily have to mean privatization?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I don’t think it does require privatization. But I do think that the issue of solar power and wind power in Puerto Rico is really the key to the future of the island’s energy independence, because right now Puerto Rico requires oil to power 50 percent of its electrical capacity, while in the United States I think it’s less than 1 percent or 2 percent of U.S. generating capacity comes from oil. Another 15 to 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s generating capacity comes from natural gas, and another big percentage from coal. So renewables—

AMY GOODMAN: Imported coal.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Imported—well, everything is imported. The oil, the gas and the coal, they’re all imported. So that the reality is that as long as Puerto Rico depends on imported fossil fuels to power its electrical grid, not only is it polluting—continuing to pollute the planet, but it’s also being dependent on the suppliers. So, the energy independence for Puerto Rico is really a national issue that requires a immediate solution, and the best solution is clearly solar and wind power.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that does it for today’s report on Puerto Rico. We’ll be bringing you reports across the week, just having returned from Puerto Rico. And let’s not forget that on Monday U.N. experts condemned the U.S.'s handling of the disaster in Puerto Rico, saying the response was ineffective, that the mainland states of Florida and Texas had received far more support after being struck by hurricanes than Puerto Rico. And we'll see what happens with San Juan’s mayor, who flew up to Washington, D.C., for a hearing today, which, when she landed in D.C., was canceled.

When we come back, a federal judge blocks part of President Trump’s transgender military ban. We’ll speak with a trans former marine who’s challenging the ban. Stay with us.

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