If you guessed that the company Whitefish Energy is somehow involved in the latest power problems to hit Puerto Rico, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Practically the entire island went dark — again — yesterday after a major power line repaired by Whitefish somehow unrepaired itself. It’s yet another demonstration that Puerto Rico needs to drop the central power plant/long transmission line model and switch to microgrids supported by renewable energy.
Whitefish and PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, both insist that the failure had nothing to do with Whitefish’s work. That may be so — but it’s still a demonstration that microgrids and renewable energy are the way to go for grid resiliency and reliability.
Whitefish In the News Again Over Puerto Rico Grid Woes
For those of you new to the topic, Whitefish Energy is a tiny Montana-based company that somehow managed to wrangle the largest (so far) single contract for electricity grid repairs on Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Something about the $300 million seemed rotten from the get-go, and not just on account of Whitefish’s ridiculously small size, the absence of a track record for major, multi-million dollar contracts, onerous clauses in the contract itself, acquaintance with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and connections with the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.
Where we we? Oh, right, something else that seemed rotten: PREPA reportedly failed to go the usual route of seeking mutual aid from other utilities in the event of a disaster. Why? Who knows!
PREPA also failed to obtain FEMA approval for the contract, which is kind of a mistake if you’re expecting them to pay for it.
The glare of media attention has done its work and PREPA has announced that it is pulling out of the contract. That’s nice, but now Whitefish has to deal with the fallout including some questions that the FBI wants answered.
There! All caught up!
What’s Up With Whitefish?
Buzzfeed’s Nidhi Prakash has the scoop on the latest Whitefish-related fiasco:
A major Puerto Rican power line repaired by the tiny Montana company Whitefish Energy failed Thursday morning, plunging almost all of the island, including parts of San Juan and other major cities, back into darkness.
Just 18% of Puerto Rico now has power, according to the island’s energy utility, down from 43% before the line failed on Thursday, wiping out a quarter of Puerto Rico’s power generation.
As of yesterday, PREPA pretty much had no idea why the line failed and when it would be re-repaired.
Prakash tracked down a Whitefish press release dated November 3 touting its accomplishments over the past 30 days, including work on the power line that failed yesterday. That would be the line from Cambalache to Manatí in the northern area of the island including San Juan.
According to a Whitefish statement received by Prakash, the company says the failure wasn’t its fault.
That’s a little hard to square with the PREPA official cited by Prakash, who says they don’t know whose fault it is yet.
PREPA is sending helicopters over the line to scout things out, so stay tuned.
Meanwhile, Microgrids And Renewable Energy!
While PREPA and Whitefish fight over who did what, renewable energy companies are on the ground with solutions.
Companies like Empowered by Light, Sunrun, and Givepower are working on renewable energy projects, chiefly solar power, and donors are pitching in for small scale solar arrays (you can chip in to the solar campaign at GoFundMe).
The renewable energy solution is also gaining traction in the mainstream media. Last week, NBC ran down some of the main obstacles for solar power, including grid reliability issues involving Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry. Nevertheless, the NBC piece pivoted on a glowing review of Tesla’s solar project and concluded on a positive note for renewables.
As for grid reliability, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is still pitching the conventional grid model of large “baseload” power plants.
However, just last week his own agency issued a new article touting concentrating solar power for grid reliability. It was spiked with a pithy observation that applies to all solar:
“One of the biggest advantages of CSP is its reliability as an energy source and predictable costs. Unlike conventional fuels, there’s nothing to mine, ship, burn, or store as waste; there’s an abundant, unending supply of sunshine.”
That’s not the only time the Energy Department has pulled the rug out from under the Energy Secretary. For every time Perry has pitched conventional baseload plants, the agency has come out with a new report or update pitching microgrids and renewable energy for future grid reliability and energy independence.
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Image: Whitefish Energy via Facebook.