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Imagine if three economy-crippling natural disasters directly hit Connecticut in three years. Puerto Rico, a similar-sized landmass, has suffered this fate but does not have a group of neighboring states to rely on for logistic and utility support. How can Puerto Rico best build a resilient energy future and what can the rest of us learn from this particularly tricky recovery?
In the span of two weeks in September 2017, two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, hammered the island of Puerto Rico. These storms both recorded sustained winds of more than 175 miles/hour. Puerto Rico was devastated.
What happens to the utility infrastructure in a hurricane? Roughly 80 percent of the power lines were downed by Hurricane Maria.
“In general, generating facilities were not as badly damaged as the electric grid,” explains the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). “Still, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s [PREPA] largest generating plants are in the south, while the largest population concentrations are in the north, making the system dependent on its 2,400 miles of transmission and 30,000 miles of distribution lines.”
PREPA is the government-operated utility company on the islands. In the rebuilding efforts of 2018, it set its sights on a more renewable future. The utility committed to adding 97 megawatts of solar projects and 101 megawatts of wind power.
The EIA notes: “PREPA is negotiating with developers about 14 additional solar energy projects. [It also plans] to add up to 1,800 megawatts of solar power and 920 megawatts of battery storage between 2019 and 2025. Additionally, the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act should make it easier for consumers to have net metering for small-scale solar power generation.”
The goal is to be 100 percent renewable by 2050, according to the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act of 2019.
The scope of the 2050 recovery plan is an estimated $20 billion. NBC News reported: “At least 60 percent of the estimated $20 billion will be used for transmission and distribution repairs, officials said. They expect federal funds will cover at least $13 billion of the overall cost.”
As part of this plan, PREPA began looking for other companies to take over the implementation of creating eight micro-grids on the island for better redundancy.
Objectively, PREPA is a political mess. It effectively went bankrupt in 2017 and had been working on restructuring its debt by privatizing more of the capacity. The best political path forward for PREPA is not something that I can comprehend. Even without natural disaster damage, much work needs to be done there. For the scope of this column, I’ll focus more on the infrastructure wish list than the political entanglements.
The hurricanes were not the end of the headache for Puerto Rico. The gains made in rebuilding the electrical grid after the destructive storms didn’t protect the island from the next set of natural disasters.
In January 2020, the strongest earthquake in a century hit the island, followed by a month of additional seismic activity. According to The New York Times, the new power lines held up, but the main power plant on the island suffered significant damage and pushed the island back into the dark.
Initial reports from Reuters estimated that the earthquake caused $110 million in damages to the utility infrastructure. The Costa Sur power plant sustained significant damage. It could take a year to repair the power plant damages. (Long sigh).
Utility stability = renewables
What is the best way to recover from all this? Essentially, these Americans are rebooting their entire power infrastructure in a little more than 1,000 days — on an island. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) published a 59-page report in 2018 that digs into the details (https://bit.ly/2UKCQBH).
One of the most interesting graphs in the DOE report compares the lead-time anticipated to enact new utility strategies (see Figure 1). The graph plots lead times to implement a variety of energy infrastructure projects, including building new power plants. In other words, what needs to be done and how long would it take to be able to help the island?
On the long-term side of the chart, full power line updates are anticipated to take 10 years. On the short-term side, energy-efficiency measures are projected only to take a year and a half to implement.
Starting with energy efficiency is the lowest hanging fruit, regardless of where you live. “In addition, solar PV and energy efficiency enjoy short lead times relative to other energy infrastructure projects, and so have the potential to realize recovery benefits more quickly,” the DOE report notes. “Energy storage can provide valuable ancillary services to the grid, and complement the renewable energy generation required by local law.”
Solar is one of the few resources Puerto Rico has in abundance.
A community-scale commitment to renewables and energy efficiency has been done before, out of the rubble of a natural disaster. Greensburg, Kansas, was hit by a tornado in 2007. It destroyed 95 percent of the homes. Today, the homes that Greensburg rebuilt use 40 percent less energy than the average code-compliant structure.
“Thirteen new or renovated commercial buildings in Greensburg are saving a combined total of $200,000 in energy costs per year by incorporating energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies,” reports the National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL).
Utility stability for Puerto Rico could take a few paths. NREL sees the optimistic possibility of a sustainable reset. Organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency have recommended buying diesel generators to get the power back on as quickly as possible in the event of future disasters. Those two options address long- and short-term problems very differently.
The DOE estimates that 500,000 people have left Puerto Rico for the lower 48 in the past decade. More than 100,000 people may have fled the island after Irma and Maria. The earthquakes will probably increase these numbers.
The best chance Puerto Rico has to bounce back from disaster is to target a Greensburg, Kansas, future. It has the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act as a guide to be 100 percent renewable by 2050. Fossil-fuel imports could provide quick relief in the wake of disasters, but they will always put Puerto Rico at the mercy of the import energy market. No import infrastructure is needed to harvest more solar, wind and ocean energy.
Disasters will happen to more U.S. cities, states and territories. The days and weeks after should be a scramble to get the lights on and bring peace and safety back to the residents.
The long-term plan is rarely what makes headlines, but these questions are critical questions to ask in the early stages of rebuilding: What would we rebuild that would encourage our neighbors to stay? Will the displaced citizens of Puerto Rico move back if there is a diesel generator on every block? Would they prefer to move back to a sustainable, resilient modern infrastructure?
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