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Instability in Puerto Rico underscores need for a more resilient electric grid

Lead image shows a road in the Roseau area is littered with structural debris, damaged vegetation and downed power poles and lines. By Roosevelt Skerrit from Vieille Case, Dominica - Morning after Hurricane Maria, Public Domain.
Lead image shows a road in the Roseau area is littered with structural debris, damaged vegetation and downed power poles and lines. By Roosevelt Skerrit from Vieille Case, Dominica - Morning after Hurricane Maria, Public Domain.

People in Puerto Rico are outraged. This past weekend, emergency aid dating back to the aftermath of Hurricane María was discovered in the city of Ponce. The aid was not distributed in response to the recent earthquakes that displaced thousands of residents from their homes. Further fueling the shock, warehouses throughout the island are believed to contain more of such supplies. Public outcry over Gov. Wanda Vazquez’s mishandling of the aid has brought people to the streets to demand her resignation.

While we can expect the protests to increase in size and intensity in the coming days, something is evident: Unrest or not, Puerto Rico’s communities’ needs are paramount and should take precedence. One such need is a modern grid that can provide families affordable and reliable electricity, especially during hurricanes, earthquakes, and any other major disruptions.

Let’s consider the following:

  • A FRAGILE GRID

Following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s already fragile electric grid was nearly destroyed, resulting in the largest blackout in U.S. history. Communities went months without electricity, which amplified the devastation following the storm and underscored the need for a more resilient electric grid. Over the last two years, the island has slowly returned to some semblance of normalcy, but the grid remains unreliable and in need of critical repair.

  • EARTHQUAKES DAMAGE THE GRID

The 6.4 and 5.9 magnitude earthquakes that struck Puerto Rico earlier this month have caused an estimated $110 million in damages, and have forced nearly 8,000 people to sleep outside in camps for fear of structurally unstable buildings. A power plant responsible for nearly 25% of the island’s electricity was badly damaged and could be offline for at up to a year or more.

  • DISASTER RELIEF FUNDS RELEASED WITH CAVEATS

Further complicating the issue has been the federal government’s sluggish release of the disaster relief funds allocated to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria – the island has yet to receive those funds. The federal government recently released $16 billion of the $20 billion of emergency relief funds previously allocated to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. However, the administration imposed a series of restrictions, including the requirement that funds cannot be used to make improvements to the electric grid.

  • DISTRIBUTED ENERGY RESOURCES TO IMPROVE GRID RESILIENCE

Distributed energy resources, including microgrids that can reduce Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels, should play a key role in improving the resilience of the island’s electric grid. Microgrids, mini-energy service stations, can maximize locally generated renewable energy such as solar power, backed by battery storage and intelligent software. Linked to the larger grid — ensuring the delivery of affordable, clean and reliable energy every day — these systems can be designed to also separate from the grid during emergencies, like Hurricane Maria, to keep the lights on in parts of the island that need it most.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) should ensure that utility planning supports the integration of distributed energy resources, such as microgrids to advance a cleaner, more resilient energy system.

A few microgrids have been installed by various non-profit organizations in communities across the island, and environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, is collaborating with local communities and coordinating with academic institutions, technical specialists and financial experts to bring these systems to Puerto Rico and support long-term solutions to the island’s energy needs. Despite the electricity outages caused by the recent earthquakes, the microgrids that had been installed in 10 schools are up and running, demonstrating the promise of this technology for more reliable electricity distribution across the island.

  • INTEGRATED RESOURCE PLAN: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR GRID RESILIENCE

In June 2019, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) issued its revised Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), a planning document commonly used by utilities across the U.S., to outline how it will provide energy resources over the long-term. PREPA’s IRP sections the island into eight mini grids and incorporates more renewable energy and storage. But the plan also calls for the import of liquefied natural gas and the development of several gas power plants. Relying on centralized and fossil-fuel based energy infrastructure doesn’t offer a long-term solution to the island’s energy crisis, nor does it align with Puerto Rico’s goal of sourcing 100% of its energy from renewables by 2050. Should PREPA soften its stated commitment to renewables, it will undermine Puerto Rico’s commitment to source 100% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, and miss the opportunity to reduce costs, safeguard natural resources, and encourage economic development.

It is important Puerto Rico avoid unnecessary energy infrastructure investments, allocate financial resources toward renewable energy technologies, and ensure low-carbon microgrids are integrated into the island’s energy infrastructure strategically. Done right, the IRP can serve as a catalyst for cost-effective, community-scale microgrids and other distributed energy resources that will make the island more resilient.


Lead image shows a road in the Roseau area is littered with structural debris, damaged vegetation and downed power poles and lines. By Roosevelt Skerrit from Vieille Case, Dominica – Morning after Hurricane Maria, Public Domain.