Close to three months after Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico, utterly destroying the island’s electrical grid – as well as countless homes and communities – much of the island is still without power. And, where power has been restored, it is often unreliable.
Puerto Rico’s aging electrical grid was already in bad shape, but a direct hit from Category 4 storm Maria dealt a catastrophic blow to the infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the government-owned island utility. PREPA’s finances were in shambles due to poor management, theft of electricity, and inefficient billing and collection practices – not to mention Puerto Rico’s well-publicized debt. Because many parts of the grid have not been upgraded in decades, repairing it is an expensive undertaking that the financially frail utility may be unprepared to tackle. Estimates are that in some remote communities, power may not be restored for an astonishing two years.
Rebuilding (the grid) Better
A natural consensus has emerged from a broad coalition of thought leaders on how to “rebuild better” in Puerto Rico – putting into practice the best techniques and technologies for an environmentally and economically sustainable society. With respect to the electric grid, solar and wind-based microgrids with energy storage and backup generation will certainly play an important role. In the face of increasingly extreme weather events, hybrid renewable energy microgrids increase resilience by isolating from the grid and continuing to power critical facilities. While grid-connected, they help manage and smooth load, and they are able to accommodate more renewable energy than a centralized power system. This is key to a sustainable recovery for Puerto Rico, which had been generating 85% of its electricity with expensive imported fossil fuels. HOMER Energy is in a unique position to contribute to this effort, having been at the forefront of microgrid design for decades, and provided comments to the Puerto Rico Energy Commission’s recent request for information about microgrids.
The Urgent Need for Power
HOMER Energy founder and CEO Peter Lilienthal says that while planning for microgrids to play an important role in Puerto Rico’s energy future is important, the urgent need today is to restore power quickly. In a growing number of places this is being done with offgrid solar and storage months before grid power will be available. Since the hurricane, HOMER Energy has been contacted by dozens of individuals and organizations seeking information about what is being done and how they can help. We have engaged with several non-profits providing solutions on the ground, and solar integration expert Alison Mason traveled to Puerto Rico in November to observe and lend a hand.
For these organizations, the immediate focus is to procure and install off-grid distributed generation equipment that can fulfill basic, residential electric power needs during the long wait until the grid is repaired. Those needs include cell phone charging, lighting, refrigeration, water pumping, and fans, and can be met with small solar-plus-storage systems. “The collective desire to help Puerto Ricans get solar power is gaining force and new solar generation is brought online every day. HOMER is in a position to connect offers of labor, money, and equipment with non-profit organizations in Puerto Rico,” says Mason. “We also plan to offer training in microgrid design as part of an effort to augment the local planning capacity.”
On her November trip to Puerto Rico, Mason met with a number of non-profit organizations using solar energy to restore power for first responders, hospitals, and remote communities. She provided this story:
“The first few days I spent with Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR) and Solar for Puerto Rico (SPR). PJ Wilson, of SPR, picked me up at the airport around midnight, along with my two suitcases full of small, off-grid solar equipment. After a comfortable night at the Casablanca hotel in Old San Juan, we headed out to Isabela to meet up with RPPR. We found them just finishing the setup of a large solar trailer at the hospital, where surgeries for some time were performed by candlelight. RPPR raised money quickly after the hurricane and used it to purchase and air-freight solar panels to the airport in nearby Aguadilla. They will be installing small, off-grid solar-plus-storage systems for medical clinics in Jayuya, Aibonito, and Coamo in the coming weeks.
While in Isabela, we gave out three of the 30 watt solar kits that SPR provides. These systems, with their flexible, portable solar panels, are enough for a few lights and a cell phone charger – not much but a huge improvement over nothing for families without any power. The kits also came in handy for us as there was no power in the beach rental where we stayed.
Back in San Juan I visited Empowered by Light at the Metro fire station where they were installing a 6 kW system to power the city’s critical communications system for 911 calls. Sunrun had donated the solar equipment along with an experienced engineer to lead the install. Volunteers from the Las Vegas fire department provided labor, along with a couple of trainees from a local solar construction company, Aireko. Although the grid power is back on in that part of San Juan, it is intermittent and the fire station’s generator is unreliable, not designed to run continuously for days.”
Mason will be heading back to Puerto Rico soon to work with Mameyes de Utuado, a mountainous farming community. Amazingly, this connection was made by a farmer who responded to a HOMER Energy email about Puerto Rico. Mason writes:
“After receiving our email, this farmer asked for help in securing offgrid solar systems for his 400 or so neighbors who may be facing two years without the power grid. He had studied up on solar energy, then purchased and installed his own system. His neighbors see his lights on and they want to know how to do the same thing. Together we have started “Electricidad Para El Pueblo” to pursue financing, bulk procurement, and training to form a solar installation cooperative and meet the local demand. The local Community Corporation, formed a few years ago to serve unmet local community needs such as road maintenance and healthcare, will serve as the business entity for the project and warehouse the solar equipment purchased in bulk until it is installed. We are seeking experienced solar professionals to come train the workforce as well as donations or discounted equipment to lower the cost so more families can afford these systems.”
Mason believes that if the project in Mameyes de Utuado takes off, it could be a model that gets replicated in other communities across the island.
To learn more about organizations working on restoring power in Puerto Rico with renewable energy, please visit their web sites: