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Puerto Rico’s Quest For Sustainability, Part 2

Sunrun has been selected by Puerto Rico’s electric utility provider to help rebuild and transform the island’s energy system. The company will develop a 17 megawatt virtual power plant, the first distributed large scale storage program on the island.

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During hurricane season, the quest for energy independence in Puerto Rico escalates from dreams to absolute necessity.

The ongoing fragility of Puerto Rico’s power grid became evident during September’s Category 1 Hurricane Fiona. The storm dropped more than 30 inches of rain in some areas and created natural barriers of mud, rocks, and debris. Citizens filled water buckets from highland streams that trickled down from hillsides. Officials struggled to reopen roads. All of the island’s nearly 1.5 million electrical customers lost power.

Why wasn’t Puerto Rico able to rebuild and revitalize after the previous hurricane in 2017 that left the power grid in ruin?

Hurricane Maria in 2017 caused an estimated 2,975 deaths and devastated the power, water, and health care systems. Puerto Rico’s power problems were stark. The government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority went bankrupt. Without voting rights in Congress, Puerto Ricans struggled to be heard by powerful legislators on the US mainland. Federal disaster aid — billions of dollars —  was delayed.

That deadly disaster all but destroyed the island’s electric grid and left some residents without power for more than a year.

It was then that Puerto Rico’s quest for sustainability became real — locally-driven and imperative.

What Has Been Needed To Secure Puerto Rico’s Grid?

After Hurricane Maria, critics looked to Puerto Rico’s grid. Increasing utility rates were some of the highest in the US. Old, poorly maintained fossil fuel power plants were unreliable, costly, and polluting.

In 2019, two years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s government adopted a sweeping energy policy reform to accelerate the adoption of large scale renewable energy projects and improve the grid’s resilience in the face of extreme weather events. The act requires that 40% of the island’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2025 — up from just 5% today — and 100% by 2050.

The Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act was passed by the Legislature to set the parameters for a forward-looking energy system that would maximize distributed generation. Privatization would solve the grid’s problems, the critics declared. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the state run utility, launched. Today PREPA produces and procures the island’s electricity supply. LUMA Energy, a private consortium, operates the transmission and distribution system.

Many insiders suggest that privatization with LUMA Energy, the entity that took over the grid in June, 2021, was a bust, that it has actually hurt the island instead of maintaining optimal and consistent power. Activists are pushing for Puerto Rico’s government to take steps to terminate LUMA’s control of the grid as soon as by the end of this month.

But another decision has real potential. The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (PREB) determined that virtual power plants (VPPs) were key to achieving the legislation’s goals of building a resilient and robust energy system and meeting Puerto Rico’s renewable portfolio standards. The objective is to decrease use of the island’s oil-fired ​peaker plants, which are situated near population centers and contribute significant amounts of harmful air pollution.

Initially, PREPA officials expressed concerns that the VPP technology was too complex or would require significant upgrades to telecommunications networks. They ultimately settled on a plan to start with smaller pilot projects. PREPA sought proposals for 150 megawatts’ worth of VPPs.

Solar Saved The Day For Some Puerto Ricans

After Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico in September, millions of residents were left without power for days and even weeks as the island’s electricity grid failed again.

Not all residents fared so poorly, however.

Over the last couple of years, many of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people have been searching for their own energy solutions rather than await LUMA’s miracles. Roughly 55,000 rooftop solar arrays with backup battery systems are now installed across the island. Homes and businesses with rooftop solar arrays and battery storage systems, though, were able to keep their lights on and power crucial medical equipment in the storm’s aftermath. These Sunrun customers on the island were able to power through the extended outages, as the solar-plus-battery systems provided more than 350,000 hours of backup power to thousands of homes.

As utility customers continue to grapple with persistent power outages, damaging voltage surges, and rising electricity bills, a growing number of residents and business owners are adding more solar-plus-battery systems every month. Sunrun, which entered Puerto Rico in 2018, has quickly become one of the island’s largest providers of residential solar energy and battery systems.

Now Sunrun has been selected by Puerto Rico’s electric utility provider to help rebuild and transform the island’s energy system. The company will develop a a 17 megawatt virtual power plant (VPP), the first distributed large scale storage program on the island. More than 7,000 homes equipped with solar panels and batteries will form the US territory’s first virtual power plant — a sprawling network of systems that are remotely connected and controlled using software and digital communications tools.

The project will create a shared clean energy economy.

The system is meant to reduce power interruptions and fluctuations on the main electric grid that serves the wider population. The VPP will provide Puerto Rico with reliable, abundant solar energy by networking together the solar-plus-battery systems installed on homes. That can, in turn, can be a starting place toward solving energy insecurity as energy. That way, residents not only have control over their energy at home but can also contribute power to their community.

Customers will benefit from on-site energy generation and backup power and will be compensated in exchange for strategically sharing their stored energy with Puerto Rico’s power grid.

The process will start by enrolling customers into the program, with plans to start operations in 2024. The network will tap thousands of batteries during high-demand hours in the late afternoon and early evening nearly every day of the year.

VPP technology enables utilities to call upon distributed resources for clean energy capacity instead of relying on dirty, expensive fossil fuel power plants. VPPs give customers the opportunity to contribute to a cleaner energy future while delivering significant community benefits.

Those benefits include:

  • stabilizing the local electric grid
  • mitigating the risk of outages
  • reducing pollution through decreased reliance on peaker plants

Batteries enrolled in the VPP will continue maintaining adequate backup reserves to power through potential grid outages at participants’ homes. All customers with batteries are also eligible to enroll and can opt out at any point during the 10-year program. Anyone interested in participating can install a Sunrun home solar and battery storage system without a down payment and at a consistent, low monthly rate.

Such changes toward energy independence in Puerto Rico will cut back on expensive fossil fuel consumption and centralized grid infrastructure investments.

Disclaimer: The author holds a tiny amount of Sunrun stock. This article is in no way meant to be considered investment advice. Always consult a financial expert before making any investment decisions.

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Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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