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Puerto Rico’s power grid: Can tech turn tattered system into sustainable model?

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s incredible damage, many are looking at the advantages of a 21st century power system

People hang out near a business that is using a generator to keep its lights on as they wait for the damaged electrical grid to be fixed after Hurricane Maria passed through the area on September 23, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The widespread devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Maria has upended the island of Puerto Rico. Amid important and timely questions of getting food, water, and medical supplies to citizens in need, one challenge appears to literally loom overhead as residents and federal officials work to rebuild. The island’s aged and poorly maintained, power system, left in tatters by the storm, is a key obstacle to returning any sense of normalcy to Puerto Ricans.

“This is devastating,” says Ruth Santiago, an attorney and resident of Salinas who works for Comite Dialogo Ambiental, a local community group. “Small industries and companies just weren’t prepared, and even many of the big pharmaceutical plants haven’t come back. Many people are leaving the island. In the past two weeks, something like 10,000 people have left the island. Not sure if it’s a permanent exodus.”

As commentators continue to discuss the shortages and lack of power that’s still impacting a wide swatch of the island, it’s clear that there’s no quick and easy fix.

“We should have power within a few months for 30-40 percent of the population,” says Efrain O'Neill-Carrillo, Professor at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez and a resident of Añasco. “40-60 percent should get power before Christmas. But there’s a huge percentage in rural and remote areas, served by old power lines, will take a lot more time.”

But maybe, over the long-term, the island can turn a crisis into an opportunity by taking advantage of new developments in energy generation and storage. While a tweet from Tesla founder Elon Musk suggested his company can help rebuild the grid (a Tesla spokesperson had no additional details to offer), and work by a German company to install solar panels at shelters is progressing, experts and analysts on and off the island see a possible future for Puerto Rico that’s more sustainable and resilient.

“Today’s situation is really dire and humanitarian relief is key,” says Roy Torbert, principal of the Islands Energy Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute. “But if we look out to the future, it could be one where Puerto Rico is running off a much more resilient grid.”

History of mismanagement

Hurricane Maria has caused widespread damage across Puerto Rico, but the state of the electric grid was already precarious. According to observers and academics, much of the blame lies with PREPA, the commonwealth’s electric utility. According to Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis, the agency is severely mismanaged and very politicized, which has caused it to lag behind. Severe underinvestment has led to a reliance on older oil-burning power plants, which result in high fuel costs.

It also results in extensive pollution. Santiago’s group has sued to stop the operation of Aguire, the island’s largest power plant, which has been found to release extensive pollution into nearby Jobos Bay on the island’s southern coast.

PREPA currently carries $9 billion in debt, untenable in the best of circumstances, and a substantial financial hole that will hold back any efforts on restoring damaged power lines. O'Neill-Carrillo says that PREPA recently went 27 years without a rate increase, and after losing a core of industrial clients, shrinking from 1,700 to 700 companies, the utility’s cash flow position has been insecure.

Two of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority plants is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 29, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The nature of the grid itself is also a challenge. Power generation is concentrated on the south end of the island, while the population mostly resides on the north end, connected by a series of distribution lines that run through mountains and remote, rural areas. Rural electrification of the island initially took 20 years, says O'Neill-Carrillo. Basically, recovering from Maria is equivalent to repeating that feat in a few months, and many rural areas in the west and south will take a long time to recover.

“It’s not just a matter of the lines, its the transmission towers that need to be replaced,” he says.

After Hurricane Georges, a Category 3 hurricane, hit Puerto Rico in 1998, PREPA took six months to restore power to the entire island. Maria caused more devastation, and PREPA is in a weaker financial position today. O'Neill-Carrillo estimates recovery will take 8 or 9 months.

The benefits of the grid of tomorrow

The restoration of PREPA and the power grid seem destined to be part of looming battles about recovery funds and forgiving the island’s public debt.

“There’s going to be a big political fight over how that money gets deployed,” says Kunkel. “But, from a technical standpoint, you could rebuild it in a much better way.”

Many experts agree. Puerto Rico’s geography, a challenge for traditional power lines, is ideal for more renewable, sustainable power systems, including solar panels and microgrids (smaller, decentralized, local power networks). Kunkel points to numerous examples in the Caribbean and U.S., including Haiti, Hawaii (which has been transitioning to renewables), American Samoa, and even New York, where microgrids are being tested to create more resilient power systems.

“The question of funding is obviously the elephant in the room,” says Kunkel. “The legacy debt will be decided by the bankruptcy court. It seems like a key demand to write off that debt. It seems crazy for the Puerto Rican rate payers to pay off that debt as well as pay to rebuild that system.”

Torbert says that the costs of building a traditional grid that could withstand strong hurricanes and more extreme weather, such as placing transmission lines underground, would be cost prohibitive. But building a network of microgrids powered by solar, wind, and hydro power, which are decentralized and non-polluting (and backed-up by better and better battery technology), and can more quickly be brought back online after a disaster, and quickly help power hospitals and communications. And right now is the time to discuss and do it; rebuilding has already begun, even small sustainable projects can plug into the grid, and today’s infrastructure investment can save money and lives tomorrow.

Puerto Rico’s financial situation makes this upgrade a substantial challenge, but it can and has been done elsewhere. It’s an investment in the commonwealth’s future that can help protect American citizens from the dangerous after-effects of a disaster for decades to come.

“If you stand on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico and look out to St. Thomas, they’re far ahead of us,” says Santiago. “Island electric grids just cannot continue to depend on fossil fuels. If there’s anything we’ve learned from Hurricane Maria, it’s that we can’t get gas for our cars or diesel for our generators.”