The Promise & Perils Of Renewable Energy & Microgrids For Puerto Rico

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Update: After this story was filed, The Guardian published a news story that begins as follows: “The mayor of San Juan lashed out at Trump administration on Friday, decrying its relief effort in the wake of hurricanes Jose and Maria and saying: ‘If we don’t solve the logistics, we are going to see something close to a genocide. We are dying here,’ Carmen Yulín Cruz said at a press conference, speaking with tears in her eyes. ‘I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics … of an island a mile wide.’ Cruz appealed directly to the president, saying: ‘So Mr Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives. If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of. Enough is enough.’”

Hurricanes Irma and Maria combined to deal a crippling blow to Puerto Rico. 10 days later, electricity is still out to most of the island. Food and water are stockpiled in San Juan Harbor, but there is no diesel fuel for the trucks that need to take them to where they are needed. Grocery stores have no food to sell and no refrigeration for perishables.

puerto rico
Credit: NASA–NOAA GOES Project

Power & Politics

The starving residents of Puerto Rico are left to wonder if Uncle Sam really cares a flying fig leaf about them as the #FakePresident blathers and blusters about debts owed to Wall Street and whether relief supplies should be allowed in that are not carried in American-owned ships because of a law passed by Congress in 1920.

By all estimates, it will be months before the electrical grid on the island is repaired — a process that is projected to cost billions of dollars. Some isolated areas could be without power for up to a year.

Why? Because Puerto Rico is broke. Most of its citizens exist on one form or another of government assistance funded by Washington. Aside from tourism, the island has few economic avenues available to it. A chronic lack of funds has forced the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to put off critically needed upgrades and repairs to the electrical grid for decades. For all intents and purposes, the creaky old system got broadsided by the hurricanes and just collapsed.

What’s Ahead For Puerto Rico?

The question now is what to do about it? Puerto Rico depends almost entirely on oil-fired generating plants, resulting in some of the highest utility rates in the nation — second only to Hawaii. It is estimated 12% of the electricity it does generate is lost to theft or chaotic billing procedures, which is 3 times the rate among mainland utility companies. PREPA itself is $9 billion in debt. Where is the money going to come from to rebuild the grid?

PREPA has virtually ignored renewable energy, getting only 3% of its energy from wind or solar today. This despite the fact that its prevailing breezes and abundant sunshine make it an ideal candidate for both. It also follows the grid model that has prevailed throughout America since the days when Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse arm wrestled about the relative merits of DC and AC power — a central generating station linked by high tension wires to substations, then out to homes and businesses via a welter of poles, wires, and transformers. “A microgrid’s multiple generation sources and ability to isolate itself from the larger network during an outage on the central grid ensures highly reliable power,” a recent report from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association found.

Microgrids & Resiliency

Isn’t it time to rethink that century-old model? A system of microgrids powered by solar or wind would add resiliency to the island’s electrical supply. Even if some are damaged by storms, the rest could still function, limiting the scope of the catastrophe. Battery storage could be the final piece of the puzzle. Although expensive, it only needs to get installed once. Oil-fired generating plants need bunker or diesel oil shipped in by tanker every day in perpetuity.

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Surely, eliminating some or all of the cost of fuel could help finance long-term solutions like battery storage, couldn’t it? In theory, yes. But there is the $9 billion debt issue that needs to be resolved first. Got to protect the Wall Street bankers the way they protected people in the global economic meltdown of 2008, right?

“You look at islands like Dominica, Anguilla and the other islands affected by the recent hurricanes, I’ve spoken to a couple of the utilities, and they say they would prefer to rebuild using distributed generation with storage, and just trying to reduce the amount of transmission lines,” said Tom Rogers, a renewable energy expert at Coventry University in Britain. He has been an expert lecturer in energy at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.

“Because that’s where their energy systems fail. It’s having these overhead cables. They have energy prices which are some of the highest in the world,” Rogers says. “And that has a massive economic impact, especially as a lot of these islands’ economic dependence is on tourism, which introduces a high energy demand for their hotels, in particular from air conditioning loads. A PV system installed in the tropics will generate over one and a half times more than exactly the same PV system installed in the higher latitudes, say in Washington or Europe,” he says.

Nukes, Says Rick Perry

Energy Secretary Rick Perry — who has no expertise of training for his position — has a solution. Here is how Brainiac Rick thinks we should handle the problem: “Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up and plug it in?” Sure, Rick, you embarrassing pant load. That’s a no brainer, as in only someone with no discernible brain would suggest such a thing.

The Alaska Model

Alaska is not an island, but it does have hundreds of remote communities. It has been a laboratory where microgrid technology can be tested in the real world. Many of those villages now rely on renewable energy rather than diesel and oil-fired generators. “When we are facing the sort of infrastructure destruction we have seen this hurricane season, it only makes sense to give some pause before reinvesting in the exact same system that proved to vulnerable,” Gwen Holdmann, who directs the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said by email.

The Alaska model could apply just as well to Puerto Rico, she says. “If the system were redesigned around microgrids incorporating local power production, there would still be losses, but the number and duration of outages due to severe weather events would decrease.”

Those Pesky Carbon Emissions

The other half of the problem for antiquated electrical systems like the one found on Puerto Rico and on many other islands in the Caribbean and around the world is the carbon emissions that flow out of the smokestacks of oil- or diesel-fired generating plants. Renewables are about more than just electricity to run the latte machine in posh hotels. It is also about not poisoning the air the people living nearby have to breathe.

Tom Heggarty, a senior analyst at GTM Research, argues that islands like Puerto Rico should switch now to cleaner-burning natural gas and add battery storage at some point in the future when prices drop around 10 years from now. “The potential market for displacing oil with new sources of power supply is very large,” he says. “We estimate that there are around 3,600 islands around the world where oil products currently provide a large proportion of power supply.”

That may be so, but it ignores the cost of converting to natural gas. Why not use that money to invest in clean power strategies now that will pay dividends far into the future? Heggarty’s suggestion also does nothing to address the failed grid model or build in the increased resiliency microgrids would bring to those islands. Nor does it provide a long-term solution to carbon emissions. Reductions are great but eliminating them altogether is better still.

A Failure Of Political Will

The only person who seems to have the clarity of vision needed to bring Puerto Rico and other islands into the renewable energy future is Elon Musk. His company is providing 90% of the power needed for the island of Kauai from a solar and battery storage microgrid, and he is hard at work at doing the same for Australia, which is itself an island, albeit a rather large one.

It should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that pouring money into fixing Puerto Rico’s antique grid is a lose-lose proposition. Forward-looking vision is needed. Although, where it might come from is a mystery. The US Congress treats Puerto Rico the same way as it does the US Virgin Islands — a distant and slightly disreputable cousin that no one wants to have much if anything at all to do with. Political leadership when dealing with US territories has always been lacking. In the era of Trump, it is nonexistent.

The most likely result is that just enough money will be made available to get the lights back on so the tourists can return to Old San Juan while the issue of how to provide the island with electricity from resilient and sustainable sources gets kicked further down the road, something for future generations to wrestle with. We could — and should — do so much better.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Bloomberg, The Guardian

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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