‘Build Back Better’ in Puerto Rico — Microgrids Treated Shoddily


This month, a steering committee constituted in the wake of Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico wrote a report, "Build Back Better: Reimagining and Strengthening the Power Grid of Puerto Rico," for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico, and William Long, Administrator of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following the hurricane, many commentators (and I) wrote to say: Puerto Rico should deploy microgrids. I was anxious to see what the report recommended regarding microgrids. In the interim, the Puerto Rico Energy Commission on Nov. 10 issued a Resolution and Order that asked fundamental and important questions about grid restoration, including microgrids, and sought public comments. By early December, the Commission had received >50 responses. 

Unfortunately, the Build Back Better report is disappointing. While it gives a good overview of the electricity infrastructure damage post Hurricane Maria, and identifies what is needed for hardened, resilient electricity supply, the analysis has inaccuracies or mischaracterizations relating to microgrids.

A.    Timelines are absurd:  To quote, “Investments in microgrids would occur strategically over a five to ten-year period, …” Ten years?! This challenges credulity. The fact is: Microgrids can be deployed now. The report further notes,The Active DER [that is, Distributed Energy Resources that interact with the grid] cannot be fully implemented until requisite communications and control systems are installed - likely three to five years out” [highlights, italics added]. Again, the untenable five year out projection! More, why do microgrids need to interact with the rest of the grid? They can be standalone, or interact among each other, and work as a cluster — as a “federation of microgrids.” In fact, the report recognizes this possibility of standalone microgrids in another section of the report, as discussed below.

B.    Standalone microgrids are recognized but discounted: The report notes, “For some remote areas of the island, it may be feasible to more fully isolate these communities and design them to operate as separate and discrete grids. The [Working Group] recommends the consideration of feasibility studies and stakeholder discussions with local leaders and interested third parties to determine if investments in permanent disconnection from the main [Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA0] grid are in the public interest, provide more cost-effective resiliency from natural disasters, and provide adequate service quality and reliability.” This situation should have been explored more thoroughly in the report.

C.    Microgrids are poorly defined, characterized: The report’s definition of the microgrid is flawed, “A microgrid is a specific section of the electric grid …” Not necessarily. The microgrid can work as a self-sufficient, independent system, as happens with island microgrids, as recognized by the working group in B above. Further, the report states, a microgrid … “has the capability of “islanding” itself from the rest of the electric grid and operate in isolation for hours or even days at a time …” This is true. But this following is not, “… while most of the year they retain connection to the centralized grid” [highlights, italics added] Microgrids may retain connection with the grid only as an option.

D.   Internet impact is missing: The report should have addressed the state of the Internet infrastructure following Hurricane Maria. This is because the Internet can serve as the substrate for all intelligent control and communications for managing microgrids, especially since the island has a robust Giganet Island Plan, and PREPA’s sister agency, PREPA Networks, has extensive fiber-optic infrastructure. To quote the report’s position, … “the communications and controls infrastructure required to actively manage DER [Distributed Energy Resources, that is microgrids]in a centralized way, by upgrades to the centralized grid, is unnecessary presumption. Indeed, the internet is the “smart” grid! 

To its credit, the working group has identified 159 potential microgrids for Puerto Rico — of course, an under-estimate — listed under “Facility Type” in Table 3-7 reproduced below. These microgrids may be standalone, inter-work with the grid, or inter-work with each other.

The Steering Committee has no representation from engineering or technology companies with experience in the microgrids space. Where is Tesla, where is Sonnen, and a host of others who offered products and services in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane? The committee has no broadband expertise represented either, for example EPB in Chattanooga, TN, which, as a municipal  electric utility, has expanded into gigabit broadband infrastructure.

Puerto Rico’s future electricity solutions are held back due to antiquated utility mindsets on the steering committee. Microgrids in Puerto Rico can and should be deployed immediately in the island’s public interest.

The committee principals responsible for the report include:

  • Gil Quiniones, President and Chief Executive Officer, New York Power Authority, and Chair, Puerto Rico Energy Resiliency Working Group
  • John McAvoy, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc.
  • Pedro Pizarro, President and Chief Executive Officer, Edison International and Electric Power Research Institute
  • Tom Falcone, Chief Executive Officer Long Island Power Authority
  • Bruce Walker, Assistant Secretary, Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, Department of Energy
  • Julia Hamm, President and Chief Executive Officer, Smart Electric Power Alliance
  • Nisha Desai, Board Member, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority

Source: Build Back Better: Reimagining and Strengthening the Power Grid of Puerto Rico

Lead image credit: CC0 Creative Commons | Pixabay

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Mahesh P. Bhave, Founder, BHAVE Power Systems, San Diego, CA works on solutions to substitute for LPG (liquified petroleum gas) for cooking and diesel generators using solar photovoltaics and batteries. Until December 2016, he was visiting professor, strategy, IIM Kozhikode, India.  He is an engineer from IIT Delhi with a Ph.D. from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. He may be reached at mahesh@iimk.ac.in. He is author of The...


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