Puerto Ricans were already angry about the power grid. Then came Hurricane Fiona.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

More than a week after Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico, damage from the Category 1 storm lingers across the island: About 40 percent of residents are still without power and 212,000 don’t have access to clean running water. According to official reports, 26 hospitals have yet to come back online.  While the island struggles to recover, Fiona has moved on, hitting the Dominican Republic and colliding with Canada’s Eastern Seaboard on Saturday, leaving hundreds of thousands without power in Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, parts of the Caribbean and Florida are bracing for Hurricane Ian, which is expected to build to a Category 4 hurricane by Tuesday. The level of devastation wrought by Fiona in Puerto Rico, and the slow recovery in the days since, have fueled local anger towards the government, which many say mismanaged recovery funds after Hurricane Maria knocked out the island’s electric grid and other critical infrastructure in 2017. “We’re questioning why it’s taking so long,” said Ruth Santiago, a community and environmental lawyer based in Salinas, one of the worst-hit areas in the south of the island. “This was a Category 1 hurricane that did not hit us directly, except for a little bit in the southwest.” By comparison, Hurricane Maria was nearly a Category 5 and hit the island straight on. A centerpoint of public ire has been LUMA Energy, the private company that took over Puerto Rico’s power transmission system last year. Previously, the country had been serviced by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, a corruption-plagued public utility that went bankrupt months before Hurricane Maria. During the debt restructuring process, PREPA contracted with LUMA, a joint venture between American and Canadian companies, to transmit and distribute power. But like PREPA before it, the private utility’s tenure was riddled with mismanagement of the grid, delaying recovery from Maria and leaving the island vulnerable to Fiona.  “I define a storm in many ways,” said Tara Rodríguez Besosa, co-founder of El Departamento de la Comida, a grassroots farming collective that works towards food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. “Fiona is a storm, and the privatization of the electric grid is a storm as well.”  People protest outside the headquarters of LUMA Energy, the company that took over the transmission and distribution of Puerto Rico’s electric authority, after a blackout hit the island in April 2022. RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP via Getty Images Over the last several months, increasing blackouts, voltage fluctuations, and rising energy prices have led to mass protests against the private utility. Even celebrity musician Bad Bunny has repeatedly spoken out against the company.  Many viewed the LUMA takeover as part of a long trend of privatization that has hampered Puerto Rican public services and decreased democratic control, a dynamic stemming from the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, officially a U.S territory. “Right now, people are focusing on the immediate emergency, but I would not be surprised to see a big resurgence of protests against LUMA,” said Carlos Berríos Polanco, a Puerto Rican journalist currently based in Ponce who covered the demonstrations in July and August. Already he has documented at least six protests that occurred over the weekend or are planned for this week. In an effort to avert further LUMA-driven delays, town mayors across the island have been hiring their own electric brigades, often comprised of ex-PREPA workers. In some of these cases LUMA has called the police and threatened mayors with arrest.  The company’s contract is up for renewal on November 15, a deal that would lock in the utility for another 15 years; officials are now re-examining the partnership.   According to Santiago, Puerto Ricans are wondering why LUMA and PREPA have not implemented renewable energy with the historic amount of disaster funding they had at their disposal from Hurricane Maria. The country received $9 billion for electric grid reconstruction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, but only $40 million has been spent. After damaged ports prevented imports of fossil fuels from reaching the island, energy experts and climate activists advocated for investment in locally-generated solar and wind. But the government continued to push for fossil fuel infrastructure and as of March was generating less than 5 percent of its electricity from renewables, even with a law in place to achieve 40 percent renewable energy by 2026 and 100 percent by 2050.  Beyond a transition to renewables, experts and activists have called for a decentralization of the grid. Power plants along the southern coast in Puerto Rico generate around 70 percent of the country’s energy, but the majority of demand is in the north. When storms come through running east to west, they knock out the power lines that run across the island. Santiago, who sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said that government initiatives to build large solar farms on agricultural lands have been misguided; they maintain the centralized pattern of energy generation, damage biodiverse habitats, and take up valuable agricultural land.  In the southern community of Coquí, residents have attributed record flood levels during Fiona to soil compaction from two utility-scale solar projects on nearby agricultural land zoned as specially protected soil. Indeed, the environmental impact report for the most recent project predicted changes to water flows in the area. Instead of large-scale solar farms, energy activists have called on the government to support smaller grids and more rooftop solar to create a more decentralized energy supply. Studies have shown it would be possible to cover almost all the electricity needs for the island with rooftop solar alone.  Puerto Ricans with the resources to install rooftop solar after Hurricane Maria fared well during this most recent storm. The country underwent something of a grassroots solar revolution following Maria, with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reporting last week that over 40,000 Puerto Rican homes have installed solar panels since 2017 (most of these are hooked up to battery backup systems). The non-profit Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, a town in the mountains in central Puerto Rico, led an effort to develop a community-scale solar initiative, installing systems in over 100 homes and 30 businesses and opening its doors to those without power.  A Casa Pueblo worker installs a solar energy system at a home in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, in 2018. AP Photo / Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo Just as with energy independence, a grassroots movement to establish food sovereignty through community farms sprung up in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico imports approximately 85 percent of its food supply, leaving residents vulnerable to food insecurity in the event of shipping disruptions and damaged ports. Hurricane Fiona severely damaged farms across the island, wiping out 90 percent of the eastern region’s plantain crop, as well as small farms that prioritized crop diversification after Maria. As reported in the Washington Post, many of these smaller farms will not qualify for crop insurance. Damages to domestic crops may also mean higher food prices for Puerto Ricans in the coming months.  Marissa Reyes-Díaz, who co-founded Güakiá Colectivo Agroecológico, a farm in Dorado, in the north of Puerto Rico near San Juan, said community farmers are scrambling to harvest what they can and distribute food.  “The government has not prioritized small farms, but we are doing our best without structural support,” said Reyes-Díaz, who also emphasized the connection between energy independence and food sovereignty. “It remains to be seen in the coming weeks what the situation will be.” According to Berríos Polanco, many grocery stores across the island have also had to close due to lack of diesel to run their generators. Currently, a British petroleum ship with 300,000 barrels of diesel is waiting for a Jones Act waiver to land off the southern coast of Puerto Rico; because of the Jones Act, foreign ships coming from U.S. ports cannot dock without a waiver and the act has been criticized for increasing energy costs for Puerto Rico over the years.  On Thursday, President Biden promised to cover 100 percent of recovery costs from Hurricane Fiona for a period of 30 days; FEMA has been adding municipalities to the list to receive aid as information becomes available, although certain hard-hit counties in the south and west have yet to be included in the disaster declaration.  “We know each year these things are going to continue to happen,” said Rodríguez Besosa, who is taking steps to make sure her farm can operate as off the grid as possible. She added, “It’s interesting that the same entities meant to support us are the ones that have created the largest destruction and obstacles.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Puerto Ricans were already angry about the power grid. Then came Hurricane Fiona. on Sep 27, 2022.

“Fiona is a storm, and the privatization of the electric grid is a storm as well.“

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SA Teen Honoured at Young Activists Summit at UN in Geneva

A South African teenager – Zulaikha Patel (19) – who protested against her school’s hair policy is one of just six youngsters from around the world who has been honoured at the 2022 Young Activists Summit (#YAS22) at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The awards took place today during a live event with participants from […] The post SA Teen Honoured at Young Activists Summit at UN in Geneva appeared first on SAPeople - Worldwide South African News.

A South African teenager – Zulaikha Patel (19) – who protested against her school’s hair policy is one of just six youngsters from around the world who has been honoured at the 2022 Young Activists Summit (#YAS22) at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The awards took place today during a live event with participants from 134 countries, to honour six young laureates from all around the world who are working tirelessly to advance inclusivity and solidarity. Zulaikha – along with the other five – received a donation to carry out a field project and advance her cause on the ground. This was the fourth edition of the Young Activists Summit – ‘Together we thrive’ – which has reached over 3 million people on social media. Zulaikha is an anti-racism activist who led a protest against her school’s racist hair policy in Pretoria, which made nationwide and worldwide news. She said: “What triggered me to start to organize this protest was that (…) we were being forced to assimilate to what we were not, we were being told we couldn’t wear our hair as it grows naturally, we could not speak in our own groups with our friends in our African languages. That became a war on who we are, we were forced to erase our blackness, and it triggered me to do something. I knew I had to defend my identity, (…) I had to take a stand, not just for me but for my identity and the identity of my ancestors.” The others honoured at the 2022 Young Activists Summit are: Pashtana Durrani, 24, Afghanistan – Founder of LEARN Afghanistan, a network of underground schools for girls. Keely Cat-Wells, 26, UK/USA – Founder of C-Talent, a talent agency which promotes disabled talent and changes mindsets through entertainment. Sameer Jha, 21, USA – Founder of the Empathy Alliance which advances safe classrooms for LGBTQ+ students. C’est Prévue Emmy Lusila, 22, DRC – Founder of an orphanage for street children. Sebastián Benfeld, 21, Chile – Co-founder of Escazu Ahora, a movement advancing a pollution-free environment and protecting environmental defenders. The Summit is co-organized by the United Nations Office at Geneva, the NGO dev.tv, Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) and its Genève Vision label, and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. The post SA Teen Honoured at Young Activists Summit at UN in Geneva appeared first on SAPeople - Worldwide South African News.

An infusion of cash from Congress could keep the lights on in Puerto Rico

Here's what $3 billion could do to avert the next tropical storm blackout.

Puerto Rico could get $3 billion dollars for rooftop solar energy and battery storage if Congress approves a Biden administration request made earlier this week. The help is sorely needed.  The archipelago has been repeatedly hit by blackouts after a series of devastating hurricanes that crippled the electricity grid. In 2017, Hurricane Irma, which narrowly missed the main island but caused widespread blackouts, was followed by another — Maria — which killed over 4,000 people. Maria’s damage to Puerto Rico’s grid was so great that it took 11 months for power to be fully restored to the main island.       Both Puerto Rican activists and United States officials believe that investing in solar energy systems will help residents keep power on in their homes during what are certain to be more frequent and destructive storms in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico’s energy grid has been criticized for years for its unreliability under normal circumstances, even without the storm damage to power lines and generators. While a growing number of Puerto Rican households are taking the initiative to install solar panels on their rooftops, the majority of households continue to rely on electricity through the mainstream power grid, or run diesel-powered generators. Generators, however, are expensive and pollute the air.  But high costs and environmental considerations are only part of the picture. Electricity blackouts on Puerto Rico in the wake of tropical storms have exacerbated the already devastating public health and safety crises that followed. Researchers have estimated that in the three months after Hurricane Maria there was a 62 percent increase in mortality,  Many deaths following the hurricane occurred in isolated and mountainous regions where residents were unable to access outside water or medical facilities. But the lack of electricity at home may have been the biggest factor in the high mortality, as residents were unable to boil water, refrigerate food and certain medicines, or run air-conditioning in their houses. While a growing number of Puerto Ricans are installing solar panels on their rooftops, it remains too expensive for many. Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo via AP Images After Hurricane Fiona hit in September, residents who had installed solar panels on their homes were able to maintain their power even as the energy grid failed yet again. In spite of this, most households in Puerto Rico simply cannot afford to switch to solar without financial assistance offered by the federal government. The majority of census tracts in Puerto Rico are defined as disadvantaged, frequently due to high local energy costs coupled with low household incomes. Puerto Ricans as a whole pay some of the highest energy bills in the United States. In San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, the average cost to install solar panels for a household is nearly $12,000. While that’s less than what the average household on the U.S. mainland would have to pay for home solar, the cost is too much for most Puerto Ricans; the territory’s median household income is around  $21,000.  Before Hurricane Maria in 2017, household adoption of solar energy on Puerto Rico appeared to be more motivated by reducing electricity bills. Now, simply being able to turn the lights on has become just as strong a motivation. The archipelago is also considered a favorable location for widespread solar power adoption. A preliminary study in 2021 from the National Lab of Renewable Energy concluded that transitioning to rooftop solar energy could produce up to four times the current energy needs of Puerto Rico. This potential is largely due to its high amount of exposure to sunlight throughout the year.  While some Puerto Ricans may acknowledge the value of allocating financial resources to rooftop solar energy, others are not convinced that relying on federal funds will lead to any fundamental changes on the ground.  “Since Maria, the U.S. government has made many allocations of funds that never arrive or their impacts are not seen in Puerto Rico,” said Arturo Massol Deyá, the executive director of Casa Pueblo, a Puerto Rican organization that supports community self-management projects. Instead, Massol Deyá said, Casa Pueblo and other organizations are working to develop an independent electricity grid centered on solar energy projects that are run for and by local communities in Puerto Rico.   “We’re working to break the dependency model,” he said.  This story was originally published by Grist with the headline An infusion of cash from Congress could keep the lights on in Puerto Rico on Dec 2, 2022.

CIA Venture Capital Arm Partners With Ex-Googler’s Startup to “Safeguard the Internet”

Trust Lab, founded by a former Google exec for content moderation, will identify “online harmful content, including toxicity and misinformation.” The post CIA Venture Capital Arm Partners With Ex-Googler’s Startup to “Safeguard the Internet” appeared first on The Intercept.

Trust Lab was founded by a team of well-credentialed Big Tech alumni who came together in 2021 with a mission: Make online content moderation more transparent, accountable, and trustworthy. A year later, the company announced a “strategic partnership” with the CIA’s venture capital firm. Trust Lab’s basic pitch is simple: Globe-spanning internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube so thoroughly and consistently botch their content moderation efforts that decisions about what speech to delete ought to be turned over to completely independent outside firms — firms like Trust Lab. In a June 2021 blog post, Trust Lab co-founder Tom Siegel described content moderation as “the Big Problem that Big Tech cannot solve.” The contention that Trust Lab can solve the unsolvable appears to have caught the attention of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm tasked with securing technology for the CIA’s thorniest challenges, not those of the global internet. “I’m suspicious of startups pitching the status quo as innovation.” The quiet October 29 announcement of the partnership is light on details, stating that Trust Lab and In-Q-Tel — which invests in and collaborates with firms it believes will advance the mission of the CIA — will work on “a long-term project that will help identify harmful content and actors in order to safeguard the internet.” Key terms like “harmful” and “safeguard” are unexplained, but the press release goes on to say that the company will work toward “pinpointing many types of online harmful content, including toxicity and misinformation.” Though Trust Lab’s stated mission is sympathetic and grounded in reality — online content moderation is genuinely broken — it’s difficult to imagine how aligning the startup with the CIA is compatible with Siegel’s goal of bringing greater transparency and integrity to internet governance. What would it mean, for instance, to incubate counter-misinformation technology for an agency with a vast history of perpetuating misinformation? Placing the company within the CIA’s tech pipeline also raises questions about Trust Lab’s view of who or what might be a “harmful” online, a nebulous concept that will no doubt mean something very different to the U.S. intelligence community than it means elsewhere in the internet-using world. No matter how provocative an In-Q-Tel deal may be, much of what Trust Lab is peddling sounds similar to what the likes of Facebook and YouTube already attempt in-house: deploying a mix of human and unspecified “machine learning” capabilities to detect and counter whatever is determined to be “harmful” content. “I’m suspicious of startups pitching the status quo as innovation,” Ángel Díaz, a law professor at the University of Southern California and scholar of content moderation, wrote in a message to The Intercept. “There is little separating Trust Lab’s vision of content moderation from the tech giants’. They both want to expand use of automation, better transparency reports, and expanded partnerships with the government.” How precisely Trust Lab will address the CIA’s needs is unclear. Neither In-Q-Tel nor the company responded to multiple requests for comment. They have not explained what sort of “harmful actors” Trust Lab might help the intelligence community “prevent” from spreading online content, as the October press release said. Though details about what exactly Trust Lab sells or how its software product works are scant, the company appears to be in the business of social media analytics, algorithmically monitoring social media platforms on behalf of clients and alerting them to the proliferation of hot-button buzzwords. In a Bloomberg profile of Trust Lab, Siegel, who previously ran content moderation policy at Google, suggested that a federal internet safety agency would be preferable to Big Tech’s current approach to moderation, which consists mostly of opaque algorithms and thousands of outsourced contractors poring over posts and timelines. In his blog post, Siegel urges greater democratic oversight of online content: “Governments in the free world have side-stepped their responsibility to keep their citizens safe online.” Even if Siegel’s vision of something like an Environmental Protection Agency for the web remains a pipe dream, Trust Lab’s murky partnership with In-Q-Tel suggests a step toward greater governmental oversight of online speech, albeit very much not in the democratic vein outlined in his blog post. “Our technology platform will allow IQT’s partners to see, on a single dashboard, malicious content that might go viral and gain prominence around the world,” Siegel is quoted as stating in the October press release, which omitted any information about the financial terms of the partnership. Unlike typical venture capital firms, In-Q-Tel’s “partners” are the CIA and the broader U.S. intelligence community — entities not historically known for exemplifying Trust Lab’s corporate tenets of transparency, democratization, and truthfulness. Although In-Q-Tel is structured as an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit, its sole, explicit mission is to advance the interests and increase the capabilities of the CIA and fellow spy agencies. Former CIA Director George Tenet, who spearheaded the creation of In-Q-Tel in 1999, described the CIA’s direct relationship with In-Q-Tel in plain terms: “CIA identifies pressing problems, and In-Q-Tel provides the technology to address them.” An official history of In-Q-Tel published on the CIA website says, “In-Q-Tel’s mission is to foster the development of new and emerging information technologies and pursue research and development (R&D) that produce solutions to some of the most difficult IT problems facing the CIA.” Siegel has previously written that internet speech policy must be a “global priority,” but an In-Q-Tel partnership suggests some fealty to Western priorities, said Díaz — a fealty that could fail to take account of how these moderation policies affect billions of people in the non-Western world. “Partnerships with Western governments perpetuate a racialized vision of which communities pose a threat and which are simply exercising their freedom of speech,” said Díaz. “Trust Lab’s mission statement, which purports to differentiate between ‘free world governments’ and ‘oppressive’ ones, is a worrying preview of what we can expect. What happens when a ‘free’ government treats discussion of anti-Black racism as foreign misinformation, or when social justice activists are labeled as ‘racially motived violent extremists’?” The post CIA Venture Capital Arm Partners With Ex-Googler’s Startup to “Safeguard the Internet” appeared first on The Intercept.

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