Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that obliterated the island’s aging and poorly maintained electrical grid. Like many islands, Puerto Rico has depended for years on electricity from diesel and coal powered generators. Virtually all of them were located along the southern coast of the island but the majority of the demand was in the north — not only San Juan but the industrial areas around Bayamòn together with the resort communities of Carolina, Rincon, and Fajardo.
PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, constructed long distance transmission lines that traversed the mountainous area in the middle of the island to connect supply with demand. Maria decimated those transmission lines. Not only did it rip out the wires, it toppled the towers and stanchions that supported them. After the storm was done venting its wrath on Puerto Rico, there was little left of its electrical grid.
Ahead of a formal announcement on February 12, PREPA has released a draft of its plan to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid over the next 20 years. According to a report by the Sierra Club, the proposals contained in that draft would divide the country into 8 regional grids that are neither maxi nor mini in size. Let’s call them midi-grids. The regional grids would be interconnected but capable of functioning independently in the event of another storm like Maria. They could be owned by the utility company or private groups.
Taken as a whole, the draft plan calls for the largest build-out of solar and battery storage in the history of the US, according to Solar Industry Magazine. That’s good news for renewable energy advocates. What’s not such good news is the construction of new natural gas powered generating facilities, which will require the creation of three new LNG terminals. Still, natural gas burns cleaner than diesel, especially when it comes to the particulates that contribute to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease that diesel fuels spew into the atmosphere.
“During Hurricane Maria, hundreds of people died simply because they couldn’t keep their insulin refrigerated or their oxygen machines running,” says Adriana Gonzales, environmental justice organizer for Sierra Club de Puerto Rico. “We need the solar and storage in this plan so we can protect health and safety through the next hurricane with distributed, reliable energy infrastructure.
“I’m also proud to see my island taking the lead in addressing the climate crisis,” she adds. “Puerto Rico, a small island burdened by punitive debt obligations, could soon be leading the U.S. in adoption of new solar technology. Perhaps we are more motivated to act because we have already experienced the violent, destructive impacts of runaway climate change. I hope that Puerto Rico’s example will help other states find a pathway toward sustainability and resilience in the face of climate change and a demand for cleaner and lower-cost energy options.”
The energy plan calls for the installation of 2,220 MW of solar energy and 1,080 MW of energy storage. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, there are 1,031 MW of battery storage in all the US at the present time. The renewables will allow Puerto Rico to phase out the coal and diesel powered generating stations that have been the backbone of its energy supply for decades.
With input from Siemens Power Technologies International, the plans calls for the emphasis to be on creating renewable energy sources during the first five years of the plan. The proposed battery installations would contain a mix of 2, 4, and 6 hours of energy storage, according to Utility Dive.
Despite the breadth and scope of the plan, there is resistance among locals to the idea of building new fossil fuel generating stations and to privatizing PREPA, which is more than $9 billion in debt. The plan does not make it clear how that indebtedness will be cleared from the books. Another stumbling block is that president Trump has threatened to divert funds from FEMA’s disaster relief budget to pay for his Maginot Line along the southern border of the US.
“This update to the integrated resource plan is a step forward for Puerto Rico,” says Jeremy Fisher, senior strategy and technical advisor at the Sierra Club. “This new focus on deploying solar energy on the island is long overdue, and the planned investments in energy storage technology will make Puerto Rico’s energy system more resilient to disruptions. Getting new solar and storage deployed quickly should also allow PREPA and its customers to move away from high-cost imported fossil fuels, reduce toxic emissions, and reduce costs for families and businesses.
“I hope the utility is able to move forward quickly on cost-effectively implementing these solar and storage plans and looks to minimize new investments in fossil fuel plants and imports. Puerto Rico has a unique opportunity to transition away from oil and coal and accelerate towards a clean energy future for the benefit of ratepayers, public health and the environment.”
Will Puerto Rico reveal the true promise of renewable energy and serve as a model for the rest of the country? Not if the US Congress and the executive branch have any say in the matter. Puerto Rico is in the state it’s in because of decades of corruption and neglect by the US government.
The draft plan may offer hope for the future but the reality will likely include large chunks of money for those PREPA debt holders and others who will want to horn in on the opportunity to make a quick buck. If what happened to New Orleans after Katrina is any example, it will be a long uphill climb for Puerto Rico to pull itself up by its boot straps.