Is there still hope for a renewable microgrid in Puerto Rico?

Solar panels

Solar cells could help Puerto Rico build a new energy grid to end dependency on fossil fuels. (Pixabay)

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Climate, Energy, Natural Disasters, Past Storyfest Entries, Policy, Renewable Energy, Solar

We are in the wake of a hurricane season that left North America with a multitude of messes to clean up across the east, from Texas to Puerto Rico. We saw major areas devastated by the rains and wind across the country. Where this story changes from place to place is in the way that we have responded to the aftermath.

Puerto Rico laid in ruins after the clouds and rain cleared. It first was hit by the outskirts of Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, followed by Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, which crossed directly over the center of the island. According to records, Hurricane Maria was the fifth strongest storm to hit the island in the last 80 years. The storm at first left more than 85% of the island’s population without power, and three months later there were still half who did not have power. The island was hopeful to reach 95% power by the New Year, however, that deadline has since come and passed. It has been the longest and largest blackout in U.S. history, according to a report by Vox.

Puerto Rico power line damage
Downed power lines in Roseau, Puerto Rico, the morning after Hurricane Maria. (Roosevelt Skerrit/Flickr)

A system in prior need of a re-vamp

Even before Hurricane Maria, the status of Puerto Rico’s energy department was in shambles. It was highly outdated and in severe debt. Puerto Rico’s economy has been struggling over the past few years. Many of the island’s skilled workers have opted to move to the U.S. mainland for better job opportunities. This has left the islands with few workers to take on the large-scale infrastructure overhauls that are needed.

Furthermore, the island owes billions to bond holders and pension payments. The Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was, and is not, an ideal source of power for the island. A centralized power system that relied on imported fossil fuels. Due to the population distribution, the inefficiency was exasperated; most citizens live in a ring along the coast. The centralized grid relied on power grids that had to crisscross the island, further exacerbating the costs. Ultimately, PREPA declared bankruptcy in 2017 — and this was before the storms hit.

Moving forward from rock-bottom

The future of the island’s energy came into the public eye in the wake of the hurricanes after a Twitter exchange between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Elon Musk. The two pondered the plausibility of Puerto Rico adopting Tesla’s newly acquired solar technology.

Aside from Tesla donating solar panels and a generator to a local hospital in Puerto Rico — which has been operating on the power provided by the generators since — little has come to fruition after the initial talks between Musk and Gov. Rosselló. However, this does not mean it’s too late. After the unfortunate failure of Whitefish, the Montana power company who was awarded the contract of rebuilding the islands’ infrastructure, the company vastly overcharged the island and struggled to even get equipment on site, thus leaving the island in a worse state than after the storm initially hit.

A cheaper source of energy is not the only draw to solar for the island. Solar would provide a source of national pride for the island. As an island that relies heavily on ecotourism and other similar industries, solar would be yet another attraction as well as another example of an island going green to become self-sufficient in its energy use.

Other islands could be a model for Puerto Rico’s success 

The island of Ta’u in American Samoa went 100% solar just last year, although it is vastly smaller in territory than Puerto Rico. Talks of the switch from diesel generators to solar started about two years ago, however, the grid was not fully operational until November of 2017. Provided with 5,238 solar panels and 100 solar battery packs, the island of 600 residents can fully supply all of their power needs with solar power. The project was made possible by The American Samoa Economic Development Authority in a partnership with Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Department of Interior. In total the project cost $8 million. Once fully charged, which takes only seven hours, the packs can provide full power for 3 days. This is a large improvement in the eyes of many residents from the 109,500 gallons of diesel they were using in previous years, the delivery of which was often late and unreliable. The island has since seen a huge drop in price for energy as well as a more reliable and long-term solution to their energy needs.

Additionally, the Hawaiian island of Kauai installed more than 50,000 panels and a 52-megawatt battery installation. This provides more than enough power for the island to function throughout the night without burning fossil fuels for the island of 66,000 residents. Early projections from the Tesla team has released statements saying that the solar installations will reduce the fossil fuel needs of Kauai by 50% in 2019. This was desperately needed because Hawaii residents paid the most for power of any U.S. states or territories, followed only by Puerto Rico.

A similar project in Puerto Rico just might provide the spark that they need to garner the economic interest in the country that they so desperately need. However, the window for focusing on long term overhauls is shrinking. But the benefits would be long lived. If solar were adapted, it likely would be in smaller local power grids, providing cities and communities with more autonomy. The solar arrays are far more durable and the country would avoid having to rebuild power lines across treacherous forested mountains as they are currently trying to do. Solar would provide a local power source that would make importing expensive fossil fuels a thing of the past.

We have yet to see any boots on the ground in terms of any infrastructure being created in order to host solar panels and facilities. Regardless, the door has been opened for solar in Puerto Rico; with moguls like Elon Musk showing interest in their future. Hopefully we can see some real, concrete efforts before the window closes.

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