The Verge has a fascinating and depressing article about the failure to modernize the Puerto Rican grid. A lot of it comes down to the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony and the Trump Administration treated it as such, restricting their ability to do the necessary work. But the Biden Administration has removed those restrictions and is acting to help. So why the problem?
Because every infrastructure project in the US is ultimately local:
“The caveat certainly is we are not the decision makers for the transmission investments or the distribution investments on the systems,” a DOE official replied. “Implementation would ultimately be the responsibility of the government of Puerto Rico, the public utility, the regulators, and public support.”
It’s a treacherous stretch for energy policies, not just in Puerto Rico. A lot of money is at stake, and complex bureaucratic processes provide ample opportunity for derailment and delay. Leah Stokes, in her book Short Circuiting Policy, likens it to “organized combat” between various factions battling it out in regulatory trench warfare. Many observers of the last five years of grid reconstruction worry the findings will simply be ignored.
This is one of the reasons that sensible high-speed rail in places like Florida and Wisconsin were never started — the local governors rejected the projects for political reasons. In the US, the federal system means that localities have a lot of say in how, when and by whom infrastructure projects are developed. It might be that the Federal government can sidestep those issues, but so far, no government has.
There are other issues, of course, but it is hard to shake the feeling that federalism is too strong in the US. And if we cannot do something as obvious as save the Puerto Rican power gird, how can we be expected to react to the changes needed to get past the climate emergency?