Puerto Rico’s utility sector has a very long and politicized history, and politics will play a big role in how the island territory will recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm that hit the island on September 20, 2017. Puerto Rico, barely recovering from Hurricane Irma, was devastated by Maria, a storm so large and so direct that its eye alone literally covered the entire island. The storm destroyed more than three-fourths of the island’s power infrastructure, leaving Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents without power. Current estimates are that most of the island won’t get power from the central grid for months. This reality is catastrophic for residents, who are running out of generator fuel, food, and clean drinking water.
Even before the destruction, Puerto Rico’s power system was in trouble, with antiquated equipment and infrastructure, and $9 billion in debt. TIME magazine reports that half of the territory’s electricity came from imported oil, power outages were a frequent occurrence, and electricity prices were astronomical, second only to Hawaii’s.
Almost two weeks have passed since Maria, and Puerto Rico is still in a state of crisis. Non-urban areas are completely lacking in any infrastructure, and in cities, apartment-dwellers are living in unbearably hot buildings. Hospitals can’t keep medicines cold.
Otis Rolley, the 100 Resilient Cities regional director for North America, tells Wired magazine that the goal should be to “rebuild in a fundamentally different way so that the source is cleaner and the distribution is more reliable.”
Starting with purpose vs. more of the same
A key question, though, is what will this rebuilding look like? One possibility is that the island keeps the centralized status quo. But with the situation being untenable to begin with and the possibility of more extreme storms in the future, that plan is incredibly short-sighted and dangerous. The current crisis calls for a drastically different vision, and that vision is to build a brand-new system that is more resilient in the face of unknown future storms and uses.
The new system must also incorporate local energy resources (mainly solar and wind) that forego the unreliability and expense of shipping in fossil fuels. Those local resources can also start providing services immediately after a hurricane.
Microgrids, primarily powered by renewables, are inherently more reliable and resilient. They don’t rely on transmission lines going over mountain ridges. They use local power sources, so that even if there is damage to the transmission and distribution system, local communities have some power instead of being completely in the dark, as is now the case for the vast majority of Puerto Ricans.
Making the case for a distributed energy future in Puerto Rico
The obvious solution is a move to solar and wind microgrids with battery storage. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló is thinking about the microgrid option:
“We can start dividing Puerto Rico into different regions,” says Rosselló,” and then start developing microgrids. That’s not going to solve the [immediate] problem, but it’s certainly going to start lighting up Puerto Rico much quicker.”
“If the standard was that Puerto Rico should procure the cheapest electricity for its residents, it’s not oil,” Jeff Navin, a former deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Energy, tells TIME. “Solar and wind, and frankly anything else, are going to be much cheaper.”
‘It’s absolutely imperative that FEMA not fund rebuilding an inadequate system’
According to the Wired report, Judith Enck, former EPA administrator for the region that includes Puerto Rico, says “…it’s absolutely imperative that FEMA not fund rebuilding an inadequate system” and recommends “…massive new investments in wind, solar, geothermal, and other clean energy sources.” Enck believes Puerto Rico should look at Hawaii as a “model for adaptive resiliency.” This past summer, Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission had approved Hawaiian Electric Companies’ Power Supply Improvement Plan, which details plans to meet the state’s 100 percent renewables mandate by 2040, five years ahead of schedule.
Solar and battery storage are well suited to being deployed in distributed microgrids so that every community has its own power source. Also, microgrids can be built in a small fraction of the time required for large centralized systems. This is especially important now, since so many of Puerto Rico’s communities may be waiting many months before the repairs to the central grid reach them.
“…an opportunity exists to develop a system that will not only be less expensive but attract private capital so that it is ‘pay as you generate,'” Scott Sklar writes in The Hill. “Segmenting Puerto Rico’s electric grid may be a much faster and more reliable rebuilding approach.” He points out that European and Japanese utilities are integrating microgrids in areas prone to power outages, and says that it makes financial sense to have local governments and the private sector cooperate in developing” a more resilient, multi-technology network that mimics our resilient networks… [using a combination of] distributed energy, from natural gas combined heat and power, to solar installations and wind farms.”
Rebuilding sustainably will take a huge effort by industry, government, the philanthropic sector, and local interests
In the past two weeks, players in the microgrid sector have already begun philanthropic efforts to help in the near future and to help steer the conversation toward a distributed energy future. Jeff Ciachurski, CEO of renewable energy investor Greenbriar Capital, tells Reuters that U.S. government support could “open up new opportunities for the sector to take over market share.” The same Reuters report also quotes Sunnova, a solar installer with 10,000 customers in Puerto Rico, as saying the destruction creates an opportunity for a new, renewable-friendly grid.
“Everybody can agree that what the future and the new power industry and system look like is not what was there before,” explains Sunnova CEO John Berger.
Rebuilding Puerto Rico sustainably will take a huge effort by private industry in coordination with the U.S. government, the philanthropic sector, and local interests throughout the territory. With a commitment to renewables, distributed generation, and storage, there is hope for Puerto Rico to have a resilient, safe, and even profitable energy future.
Do you agree? Share your thoughts about Puerto Rico’s tragedy and possible energy solutions in the comments below.
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