Microgrids, Solar, Energy Storage Could Be Foundation of Puerto Rico’s Energy Recovery

October 6, 2017

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean is an ongoing humanitarian crisis that underscores the vulnerability of traditional power grids in the face of an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season. While Texas and Florida both saw widespread electricity issues with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Puerto Rico was dealing with a bankrupt power utility and widespread transmission problems even before the first raindrop fell.

More than a week after the record-breaking storm, a full 95 percent of the island’s 1.4 million power customers remain in the dark. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the main island electricity utility, estimates it has lost 80 percent of its transmission and distribution infrastructure.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 47 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity comes from petroleum, 34 percent from natural gas, 17 percent from coal, and 2 percent from renewable energy.

What is less known is that the island territory has seen growing investments in solar, since it generates cheaper electricity than the aging oil and coal-fired power plants that provide the bulk of the territory’s electricity and could provide consumer relief from the second highest electricity costs in the U.S. behind Hawaii.

According to the DOE, solar power is Puerto Rico's fastest growing renewable resource with 127 MW of utility-scale solar PV generating capacity and 88 MW of distributed (customer-sited, small-scale) capacity.

In June 2017, three-fourths of Puerto Rico's solar generation came from utility-scale facilities and one-fourth from distributed solar panels on the islands' homes and businesses. The largest solar farm at Isabela has 45 MW of capacity and came into service between September 2016 and May 2017, doubling PREPA's solar generation over that period. It is not yet known how much damage the solar farm received as a result of Maria.

(Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AAHJs-j3uw)

On Friday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told reporters he was considering the rapid development of microgrids incorporating renewable energy and small-scale power plants and energy storage as a way to help the island recover more quickly and become more hurricane resistant.

"We can start dividing Puerto Rico into different regions... and then start developing microgrids," Rosselló told CNBC. "That’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s certainly going to start lighting up Puerto Rico much quicker."

While the microgrid strategy may become an element of the future rebuilding effort, private industry and non-profits are moving ahead with their own plans.

The recovery from Maria’s devastation is an opportunity to dramatically increase the availability of solar power and energy storage in Puerto Rico. Federal recovery funds should be earmarked for solar and energy storage to improve power generation and reduce Puerto Rico’s reliance on the legacy power plants and island-crossing transmission lines, which proved so vulnerable to the recent hurricane. By Andy Beck

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