US Energy Dept. Sees Microgrids, Renewables In Puerto Rico Future

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President* Trump talks a good game for the US coal industry, but his own Department of Energy is still pushing forward with programs that walk the renewable energy walk. In the latest example, a new appointee to the Energy Department makes a strong case for reconstructing the power grid of Puerto Rico with microgrids supported by renewable energy.

New Energy Department Appointee Hearts Microgrids

The Energy Department’s new point person for power restoration in Puerto Rico is Bruce J. Walker. He won confirmation as the Energy Department’s Assistant Secretary of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE for short) just last month, shortly after Hurricane Maria tore through the island.

Walker has a long (long, long) list of credits on the side of grid reliability and modernization.

That experience is on display in an article under Walker’s byline that appeared on the Energy Department’s website last week, under the title “How the Energy Department is Helping to Restore Power in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Walker begins by noting that grid resilience is an OE priority nationwide, with a focus on “technology development, providing technical assistance to address the changing energy environment, and enhancing protection of the grid from all hazards.”

If you caught that thing about “changing energy environment,” you’re on to something. Walker could mean the renewable energy boom, or the shale gas boom, or both. Either way, “changing” is not a particularly coal-friendly way to describe the Energy Department’s priorities.

Walker also emphasizes that part of OE’s core mission is to collaborate on “new tools and technology solutions to improve grid resilience and reliability.” That sure doesn’t sound like he is much taken with the idea of protecting conventional (and uneconomical) coal and nuclear power plants.

No, Really, The Answer Is Microgrids

For those of you new to the topic, microgrids are electrical systems that draw power on-site or from local sources. Microgrids can operate in coordination with a broader grid, and they can disconnect seamlessly to “island” themselves from widespread power outages.

Microgrids can use conventional sources like diesel. With the addition of energy storage, though, wind and solar energy have a number of clear advantages. They are far less noisy, less polluting, and less vulnerable to price swings and transportation interruptions.

With all this in mind, it’s little wonder that major energy stakeholders, including the US Department of Defense, are turning to microgrids supported by renewables for energy security and resiliency.

Walker’s article reflects that emerging consensus. He was sworn in on October 16 and he was on the ground in Puerto Rico just a few days after. By that time, the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority was already committed to a restoration of the conventional grid.

In his article, Walker acknowledges the progress (well, some progress) that has been made on that score. However, he foresees an opportunity to change direction in the long run:

 We’re building on those successes and see many opportunities ahead. The Department’s Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium is looking at ways to make the grids of Puerto Rico and the USVI more resilient against future storms…

Among other things, that means microgrids. According to Walker, the Energy Department has already identified 200 locations for microgrids at hospitals, water treatment plants, and other critical facilities in Puerto Rico.

That adds up to 11 megawatts, and that’s just the beginning. Four hundred more locations in Puerto Rico are also being scouted for microgrid potential.

Among other long-term plans in the works, Walker notes that the Energy Department could deploy advanced modeling systems to scout the most efficient locations for wind and solar generation on Puerto Rico, and integrate more distributed energy resources into the grid.

What’s Up With The Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium?

The Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium is the Energy Department’s collaborative effort to pull the nation’s power grid out of its dependency on outdated “baseload” power plants:

GMI focuses on the development of new architectural concepts, tools, and technologies that measure, analyze, predict, protect, and control the grid of the future, and on enabling the institutional conditions that allow for more rapid development and widespread adoption of these tools and technologies.

Primary support for GMI comes from the Energy Department’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability and the shop headed up by Walker, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The Energy Department also has an Office of Fossil Energy and an Office of Nuclear Energy, but it seems to have a lesser role in the initiative and is not listed as a funder.

Speaking of fossils and nukes, though Energy Secretary Rick Perry is a solid fan of renewables, he is also responsible for setting the wheels in motion to protect uneconomical coal and nuclear power plants.

The final decision is in the hands of FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. December 11 is the drop-dead date so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo (cropped): @ENERGY.

*As of this writing.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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