This Lawyer Is Ensuring the Fight for a Just and Clean Energy Future in Puerto Rico Remains Front and Center

Five years after Hurricane Maria, NRDC’s Luis Martinez remains committed to helping develop solar projects that make the archipelago more equitable for those most in need.

Luis Martinez with his son outside Asheville, North Carolina

Credit: Courtesy of Luis Martinez

Luis Martinez can pinpoint the exact moment he became an environmental advocate. In 1994, during his junior year in high school, an oil tanker crashed into a coral reef and began to spill more than 750,000 gallons along the beaches of Puerto Rico, closing off access to a beach in the San Juan area where Martinez would frequently scuba dive and surf. “There was a lack of response,” he recalls. “And I was so angry that there were no repercussions for the people responsible for causing that oil spill.”

That early encounter with environmental injustice set Martinez on a mission to develop the skills that would allow him to take action the next time disaster struck. He started by attending the University of Michigan, studying environmental science, and spending his junior year abroad in Australia to focus on marine biology. There, he would go scuba diving and come across sharks, turtles, manta rays, and other sea creatures. His studies also offered him deeper insights into how wildlife and other natural resources could be harmed. “I shifted into protection mode. That’s what brought me to law school. I wanted the tools to defend [all of] these resources,” says Martinez, who went on to earn his law degree at Tulane University in Louisiana.

Cleanup workers use vacuums to remove oil from the beaches of San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the Morris J. Berman barge spill in January 1994.
Credit: NOAA

Righting environmental wrongs

A newly minted attorney, Martinez returned to Puerto Rico in 2002, where he joined the Environmental Quality Board—Puerto Rico’s environmental protection agency—and almost immediately started to help remediate the Vieques island environmental disaster. For more than 70 years, Vieques served as a U.S. military bombing range with a history of harming the native population. As Martinez wrote in an NRDC blog, “while the live bombing practices stopped in the early 2000s after widespread protests and civil disobedience, the end of the live bombing was just the beginning of a decades-long process to remove live ordnance and restore the beautiful lands and beaches.”

Initially, the U.S. Department of Defense had suggested simply fencing off the area—a solution that Martinez and his colleagues deemed inadequate. After searching for a legal strategy to force a better outcome, they landed on a federal statute that allows every state and territory to designate one site for prioritized cleanup. Martinez worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to put Vieques on that list. In August of 2004, the island was formally added and the cleanup, which would take decades to complete, began. Even so, progress has been painfully slow. Last year, a federal report confirmed that remediation will continue through 2034, and noted that while crews had removed some 32,000 bombs, 12,000 grenades, and 1,300 rockets, many munitions remain buried there. In addition, areas of the island and its groundwater are contaminated with various toxic substances. This has angered many locals, who blame the U.S. government for health problems stemming from the toxic legacy of military activities.

Martinez’s experience in Vieques reaffirmed his desire to press for broader environmental protections. He returned to the States in 2004 to live closer to Elizabeth, his girlfriend (now wife) and to take a job as a program attorney at NRDC, where he was handed another major task: finding a way to create climate regulation at the state level, something still new at the time. He started by helping to design, implement, and defend the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which became the first multistate program to mandate greenhouse gas reductions from the electricity sector.

In 2012, Martinez took on the role of director of Southeast energy for the Climate & Clean Energy program at NRDC’s Asheville, North Carolina, office. His focus was on protecting existing environmental safeguards and advocating for the expansion of clean energy and transportation across that region. “I saw an opportunity to do meaningful work and help establish NRDC in a fast-growing area of the country that did not have a legacy of environmental and human health protection,” Martinez says. It was a new challenge that came with a few unexpected obstacles.

Around the time Martinez made the move to North Carolina, the state’s GOP legislative supermajorities, together with the incoming GOP Governor Pat McCrory, set their sights on repealing any progressive policies, particularly the state’s environmental safeguards. “Very quickly, the leadership of our new home state became fairly antagonistic toward people who look like me and also toward clean air and clean water,” he says. When the GOP legislators targeted the renewable portfolio standard, which requires a certain percentage of a state’s electricity to come from renewable resources, they discovered that the clean energy roots in North Carolina were already deep and strong. Martinez and other environmental advocates, including community organizers, argued that clean energy generated significant economic development in the state—and prevailed. Today, North Carolina is one of the leading states in the nation for solar energy and a growing player in the clean energy and clean transportation economy.

People walk through a flooded street in Catano town on September 21, 2017.
Credit: Hector Retmal/AFP via Getty

Working on Puerto Rico’s historic crisis

Of all the work Martinez has taken on in his years at NRDC, the most recent may be the most personal. Back in September 2017, Hurricane Maria was barrelling toward Puerto Rico, where his parents and sister still lived. When the Category 4 hurricane, with winds whipping at 155 miles per hour, made landfall on September 20, it knocked out the electrical system and finished off the already inadequate electricity and water infrastructure. That immediately left 3.4 million people in the dark with no access to vital resources. What followed was a terrible humanitarian crisis that killed an estimated 3,000.

Martinez felt desperate on seeing the devastation but found a way to take action. Through conversations with people on the ground, he learned that addressing the lack of electricity and clean water was paramount. Puerto Rico, which had long depended on fossil fuels to power its infrastructure, was now essentially cut off from those sources. The resulting issues were difficult for all, but especially for older adults on respirators or anyone who needed to refrigerate medication and food. “People asked for solar lights that they could charge in their homes,” Martinez says. “We started working with organizations on the island to donate solar lights. Out of that idea came another idea to solarize community centers, which served as a gathering place for many area residents, especially in underserved communities.”

Credit: Jessica Russo for NRDC

Martinez was able to work with local organizations and in partnership with the nonprofit Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR) to secure solar power microgrids. “He already had a great deal of experience, both in terms of environmental justice issues in Puerto Rico and also the practical realities of how to implement projects on the ground,” says Alejandra Castrodad-Rodriguez, acting executive director of RPPR, who has worked with Martinez since 2018.

Among the most underserved areas were Caño Martín Peña and Vieques. So that’s where the team started. Vieques had lost electrical power and cell service and closed its hospital because of the hurricane. Returning to solarize its community center as well as the Spanish fort—Fortín Conde de Mirasol—was almost a coming home of sorts for Martinez. He recalls that Robert Rabin, director of Radio Vieques and NRDC’s local partner, had also been a leader for the groups that fought to end the U.S. military presence on the island. “It was incredible to get back and work with Bob Rabin to transform the Fortin into a center for climate resilience,” Martinez says. (Sadly, Rabin passed away earlier this year from cancer complications, which impact the people of Vieques at higher rates than mainland Puerto Ricans.)

These newly outfitted spaces quickly turned into local hot spots for food, water, power, and information. The solar projects were also a prototype of sorts that showed clean energy was not only viable but cheaper than building more fossil fuel infrastructure, and more capable of withstanding and recovering from future storms.

The efforts of Martinez and his colleagues at NRDC, in conjunction with community organizations like RPPR, eventually helped encourage the government to develop a clean energy mandate. That 2019 law now requires that 40 percent of the island’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2025, and 100 percent by 2050. Despite resistance from the local utility, advocates say these targets, while ambitious, are essential—and reachable, especially given the $12 billion the Federal Emergency Management Agency has earmarked for the island to repair its grid.

Creating a new energy future

From left: Luis Martinez, Radio Vieques station manager and community leader Robert Rabin, and Resilient Power Puerto Rico cofounder Cristina Roig on the rooftop of Fortín Conde de Mirasol
Credit: Luis Martinez/NRDC

In the five years since Hurricane Maria, solar efforts by community advocates and organizations like NRDC have helped usher in what Martinez calls an “unprecedented wave of community-solarization projects across Puerto Rico.” Many of those communities are now also joining the push for the government to actively eschew fossil fuels and develop a decentralized, renewable electric system.

That has proven complicated. Puerto Rico is at a crossroads, caught between a private power utility, LUMA Energy—which seeks to maintain control of and rebuild a fossil fuel–powered grid because that’s profitable for the company—and the will of the people, who want their island to transition to clean and stable energy production. LUMA has even proposed developing “interim” gas plants as well as importing liquefied natural gas, which is expensive and difficult, given the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the current fossil fuel–based electric grid remains severely degraded, blackouts are routine, and Puerto Ricans are now paying higher electricity rates than residents anywhere else in the United States.

So for Martinez, NRDC, and many on-the-ground groups, the work is hardly over. To date, Martinez and NRDC have helped install five solar microgrids. And for the better part of the last year, they’ve partnered with RPPR on a new series of installations. These will go to key facilities that are meant to protect storm-vulnerable populations, like the homeless, during extreme weather events.

The projects may be hyperlocal in scope, but advocates are determined to share their story beyond the island’s perimeter, in the hopes that Puerto Rico can be a model for others seeking to jump-start their solar energy future. That’s why earlier this year, NRDC teamed up with Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, an award-winning graphic novelist and the creator of La Borinqueña, on a new graphic novel, guest-starring actress Rosario Dawson, to spotlight the cause. The comic book features its superhero battling shadowy evildoers in Puerto Rico who are sabotaging community attempts to install solar panels and batteries to deal with the frequent blackouts. Miranda-Rodriguez collaborated closely with Martinez, whose knowledge of the technology behind renewable energy and its practical application was invaluable. “As a storyteller, I could count on him to provide me with factual information that I was able to work into the graphic novel's script,” Miranda-Rodriguez says.

Martinez praised Miranda-Rodriguez’s work on La Borinqueña because the series highlights the importance of clean energy in a way that’s accessible to broader and younger audiences, as well as other activists. “This struggle to transition to clean energy is not just happening in Puerto Rico,” he noted in a recent book chat with Miranda-Rodriguez and Dawson. “It’s happening everywhere, but Puerto Rico can be a shining example.”

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