Seize the Grid Seizes the Moment in Puerto Rico

Student activists like Natalia Martínez-Torres see clean energy as a homegrown solution to Puerto Rico’s ever-worsening debt crisis

By Sarah Robertson

September 23, 2016


Natalia Martínez-Torres is an activist with Seize the Grid, the Sierra Student Coalition’s national campaign. | Photo courtesy of the Sierra Student Coalition

When Natalia Martínez-Torres first heard the phrase “clean energy economy” at the Sierra Student Coalition’s summer training program, she saw an opportunity to bring energy independence to her community in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Last year, she launched the first Seize the Grid campaign in Puerto Rico at her school, the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico (PUCPR). The movement quickly gained support from hundreds of students and faculty.

“In just one semester, we built a 120-member volunteer group, collected over 1,000 petition signatures, and were able to connect with different events on campus,” Martínez-Torres says.

Seize the Grid, the Sierra Student Coalition’s national campaign, mobilizes students to advocate in their communities for a transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2030. Students across the country are demanding that their administrations stop burning coal and natural gas, and start investing in solar, wind, and other energy-saving projects.

For Martínez-Torres, clean energy means more than a healthy climate; it means a better economy for Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico is facing a debt crisis that threatens not only the economy but also the government’s ability to supply electricity to the island’s 3.5 million residents. One state-owned utility company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), supplies electricity to each of the island’s 78 municipalities and is currently running a deficit of $9 billion.

Last June, just two days before Puerto Rico planned to default on a large debt payment, Congress passed a bill that allowed the island to restructure some of the $72 billion in public debt, providing time and “breathing room” to solve the ever-worsening debt crisis. But with no end in sight, activists like Martínez-Torres see clean energy as a homegrown solution.

“In the long term, we want all the communities around us, different schools and different institutions, to get involved to make a major movement,” Martínez-Torres says. “Starting local, we first want to get the proper information to the students, to the faculty members and the staff and show them what other options are available to get off the grid.”

Last year, Martínez-Torres and other activists submitted a proposal for clean energy on campus that included plans for an emissions-free building. “This is a building that uses solar panels and other energy-efficiency technology that will not cost any money and have no negative impact on the environment,” she explains.

This month, Martínez-Torres, a biology and education double major, returns for her fifth and final year at PUCPR. Having recently been elected to Seize the Grid’s national executive committee, she’ll work to expand the Seize the Grid movement in Puerto Rico and across the United States, all while juggling a full course load.

“You have to be committed to give part of your time to work on a campaign like this,” she says. “But you will gain a lot of knowledge and leadership doing this kind of work, with lots of personal and professional growth.”

Already, a new solar panel array is being constructed on campus. “It’s really hard not to get stuck in the grid. We have to be creative. I am hopeful that there can be compromise to make this change happen.”

A Seize the Grid rally at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico






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