The devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is an ongoing humanitarian crisis that underscores the vulnerability of traditional power grids in the face of an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season. While Texas and Florida both saw widespread electricity issues with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Puerto Rico was dealing with a bankrupt power utility and widespread transmission problems even before the first raindrop fell.
More than a week after the record-breaking storm, a full 95 percent of the island’s 1.4 million power customers remain in the dark. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the main island electricity utility, estimates it has lost 80 percent of its transmission and distribution infrastructure.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 47 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity comes from petroleum, 34 percent from natural gas, 17 percent from coal, and 2 percent from renewable energy.
What is less known is that the island territory has seen growing investments in solar, since it generates cheaper electricity than the aging oil and coal-fired power plants that provide the bulk of the territory’s electricity and could provide consumer relief from the second highest electricity costs in the U.S. behind Hawaii.
According to the DOE, solar power is Puerto Rico’s fastest growing renewable resource with 127 MW of utility-scale solar PV generating capacity and 88 MW of distributed (customer-sited, small-scale) capacity.
In June 2017, three-fourths of Puerto Rico’s solar generation came from utility-scale facilities and one-fourth from distributed solar panels on the islands’ homes and businesses. The largest solar farm at Isabela has 45 MW of capacity and came into service between September 2016 and May 2017, doubling PREPA’s solar generation over that period. It is not yet known how much damage the solar farm received as a result of Maria.
On Friday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told reporters he was considering the rapid development of microgrids incorporating renewable energy and small-scale power plants and energy storage as a way to help the island recover more quickly and become more hurricane resistant.
“We can start dividing Puerto Rico into different regions… and then start developing microgrids,” Rosselló told CNBC. “That’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s certainly going to start lighting up Puerto Rico much quicker.”
While the microgrid strategy may become an element of the future rebuilding effort, private industry and non-profits are moving ahead with their own plans.
Bloomberg News reported on Oct. 2 that Sonnen GmbH, a German provider of energy-storage systems, is planning to install microgrids to provide electricity for at least 15 emergency relief centers in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
The company began delivering its storage systems to Puerto Rico last week and expects to deliver at least one shipment each week as the island’s ports reopen, the company said in an emailed statement Monday.
Additionally, Resilient Power Puerto Rico, a project of the Coastal Marine Resource Center (CMRC), was launched in the hours following Hurricane Maria’s devastating strike on the island of Puerto Rico. Building on the model of the CMRC’s successes with the Power Rockaways Resilience project after Hurricane Sandy, Resilient Power Puerto Rico starts with nimble, targeted efforts to deliver solar generators to the most under-served areas of Puerto Rico.
The solar hubs will address the basic needs to charge up devices and tools, boost communications, filter water, and connect with neighbors in a space that is bright throughout the day and night. The solar hubs are being prototyped in Santurce (a district of San Juan), which will be scaled up to be based in Caguas, a city in the central mountain range of the island when they have more resources. These hubs, if effective, will be able to provide limited power to the residents of small towns around the island as the grid is restored.
The recovery from Maria’s devastation is an opportunity to dramatically increase the availability of solar power and energy storage in Puerto Rico. Federal recovery funds should be earmarked for solar and energy storage to improve power generation and reduce Puerto Rico’s reliance on the legacy power plants and island-crossing transmission lines, which proved so vulnerable to the recent hurricane.
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