About 55 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.5 million residents have power more than 100 days after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island, leading to the largest blackout in U.S. history.
As crews work to restore power for the entire territory, a task that could last into May, the energy industry and other stakeholders are aiming to turn disaster into opportunity, proposing a long-term reimagining of the electricity grid.
Puerto Rico has always been vulnerable to dangerous weather events and high energy costs because of its location in the Caribbean.
But industry leaders say another of its natural characteristics, its bountiful sunlight, could facilitate a transition to a system more reliant on solar power, especially if it’s paired with battery storage that can provide backup when the sun isn’t shining.
“There does seem to be some room for optimism in Puerto Rico,” said Lewis Milford, president of the nonprofit Clean Energy Group and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Federal and local officials, along with others, are beginning to see a different way to rebuild the grid that doesn't rely exclusively on the old way of just having more central plant power lines and hoping for the best. For the first time, there seems to be a serious look at some alternatives that include distributed solar and storage applications that can ride out and provide power during outages and storms.”
Several companies have provided renewable solutions on an emergency basis. Tesla installed a solar field and batteries to a children’s hospital in San Juan. Sonnen, a German company, is installing solar and storage systems at emergency centers.
And researchers at the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Institute, relying on donations, traveled to a remote mountain municipality called Jayuya to build solar-powered refrigerators in a community center.
The lack of power after Hurricane Maria prevented Jayuya residents from accessing medicines and healthy foods, says Lilo Danielle Pozzo, a professor who led the project.
“It makes perfect sense to have solar in Puerto Rico,” said Pozzo, who grew up on the island. “The question is how you help people acquire the systems. If there was capital to install more solar distributed across the island, people who lost electricity and suffer from health conditions can harness that during emergencies.”
But interested companies must grapple with political unrest and economic uncertainty.
Puerto Rico is facing a festering debt crisis, and its state-run bankrupt power utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, is historically averse to investing in renewable energy. Before Maria, Puerto Rico generated about 2 percent of its energy from renewables.
Still, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month released a $17.6 billion grid restoration plan produced by a group of utility companies they formed. The Puerto Rico Energy Resilience Working Group proposes rebuilding the island’s grid with renewables and distributed energy resource technologies such as micro-grids and battery storage.
Separately, the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, the energy authority that regulates PREPA, recently asked for ideas about how to rebuild the grid.
AES, a global electricity provider that already is present in Puerto Rico, offered a plan that would establish a network of solar-powered “mini-grids” backed up by battery storage.
A mini-grid as envisioned by AES is a variation of the more commonly known “micro-grid,” said Chris Shelton, the company’s chief technology officer. A micro-grid is a small, freestanding grid that can separate itself from the main electricity system during a blackout, allowing it to provide backup power.
A micro-grid is generally installed to power a single site or small group of structures that share a common owner, such as a hospital, or school system, whereas a mini-grid could be much larger, possibly the size of San Juan, AES says.
The company already runs a utility-scale solar facility in Puerto Rico built to withstand Category 4 hurricanes. The facility suffered only 6 percent damage from Hurricane Maria, Shelton said.
Shelton says an electric grid consisting of distributed solar panels, paired with batteries, could be more cost-efficient than the current system reliant on imported fossil fuels, especially because of the island’s generous sunshine. AES estimates its plan can be paid for just by 10 years of savings from depending less on fuel imports.
Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, says spreading solar panels across the island would make the electric system more independent and reduce the risk of the entire grid going down during a storm.
The nature of the current grid enhances that risk because it is designed so that most power plants are in the south, while most of the population lives in the north.
“To the extent you can reduce reliance on that system by putting generation where it is consumed, you will have a more reliable and resilient system,” Kunkel said.
“It's obvious there is risk in transforming the grid,” Kunkel added. “But this storm has been so devastating to the island’s economy. People don't want to go through this again. Everyone down there will put more premium on reliability than perhaps other places that haven't experienced something like this.”