Two major hurricanes, Irma and Maria, hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. It would be nearly impossible to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid to what it was before the storms. And undesirable. Puerto Rico needs an up-to-date electrical system that takes advantage of solar power and other renewable energy.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) managed to restore electric power to 70% of its customers the weekend after Irma’s visit.
Then came Maria, which destroyed most of the infrastructure Irma had left standing.
PREPA was already in trouble long before that disastrous September. Its mostly oil-fired power plants are, on average, twice as old as most American plants—44 years vs 18 years. Oil became so expensive that PREPA filed for bankruptcy in July 2017. It declared its infrastructure “degraded and unsafe.”
Puerto Rico now gets barely 2% of its power from renewable energy. Even Alaska, with a much less favorable climate, doubles that percentage—not counting what it gets from hydropower. Before the storms hit, PREPA resisted moving toward renewables, preferring to keep patching up its old, obsolete petroleum plants.
Without PREPA supplying electricity, most Puerto Ricans must use gasoline generators. They encounter extremely long lines at gas stations just to get enough gas to pump water.
Most American power companies are privately-owned state-regulated monopolies. The Puerto Rican government owns PREPA and has long run it according to the political whims of whichever party holds power. Now, the storms have added a humanitarian crisis to the crippling debt and poor infrastructure caused by decades of mismanagement.
Members of PREPA’s board advocated for privatization as part of the bankruptcy filing. It will not come easily. Puerto Rico has long had contentious relationships with the federal government and with private corporations doing business there. At least some Puerto Ricans will consider any additional involvement from either one as acts of colonialism and exploitation.
What does Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status mean?
Puerto Ricans are US citizens and pay federal taxes, but don’t have the rights and protections that either statehood or independence would bring. The federal government has long intervened in local affairs more than it can in states.
In the 1950s, it created tax incentives to persuade manufacturers to relocate in Puerto Rico. Among other things, it allowed American corporations to avoid paying income taxes. In the 1990s, Congress repealed the tax break, and the repeal took effect shortly before the Great Recession began.
As a result, Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is more than double the US average, and its poverty rate is double that of the poorest US state. So many people have migrated to the mainland looking for work that the island has lost 10% of its population in the past ten years. The Puerto Rican government has borrowed so much money that Governor Ricardo Rossellò has said it can only afford to repay about 20% of it.
So in 2016, the Obama administration created a federal oversight board. It reports directly and only to the President and quickly imposed austerity measures that seem more appropriate for a third-world country. No wonder Puerto Ricans complain that they are treated too much like a colony!
Political incompetence and Puerto Rico’s power grid
Puerto Rico only gained the right to elect its own governor in 1947. The last federally-appointed governor oversaw the public takeover of private utilities. To overcome opposition from municipalities, who stood to lose property tax revenue, he offered them free electricity.
Several municipalities in Puerto Rico own skating rinks. Think of how much electricity it takes to keep an ice sheet and cool indoor temperatures on a tropical island! But they don’t pay PREPA a penny. Free electricity for cities cost it $420 million just in 2016.
Politicians have pressured it to keep rates as low as possible for citizens, too. It costs at least 22¢ per kilowatt-hour to generate electricity, but PREPA charges less than 20¢. That’s still the second-highest rate in the country, yet PREPA has $4 billion worth of deferred maintenance needs.
Needless to say, PREPA can’t afford to upgrade its oil-fired plants to meet clean air standards. So it decided to try to switch to natural gas. That required construction of a new import terminal. Its construction is behind schedule.
After the storms hit, PREPA hired Whitefish Energy, a Montana-based firm with only two full-time employees, to oversee restoring power. The contract prohibited any level of government from auditing the company’s costs and profits! Governor Rossellò has asked PREPA to cancel it.
Puerto Rico’s government had already started to consider the advantages of renewable energy and energy efficiency. In 2014, it created the Energy Commission of Puerto Rico to regulate PREPA and instructed PREPA to expedite preparation for interconnection of distributed small-capacity generators. The same act created an independent office to defend consumer interests before PREPA.
At the federal level, however, the Stafford Act limits disaster recovery funds to restoring pre-emergency infrastructure. Federal aid therefore must include suspension of that requirement.
The promise of renewable energy in Puerto Rico
With PREPA in bankruptcy, even its own board is calling for privatization. Puerto Rico has sorry history with mainland and foreign corporations. Many observers consider simply returning the publicly-operated utility to private ownership as a further act of colonialism.
Because Puerto Rico is an island, it can’t connect with the mainland grid. It has no domestic oil, gas, or coal. A new fossil fuel grid, no matter what technological upgrades it may have, would still leave the island dependent on expensive imports. While restoration of grid service is necessary, it won’t be enough.
Hawaii, an island state, provides an alternative to privatization that keeps control local. Connecticut-based Citizens Communications owned Kauai Electric and, like PREPA, operated a local grid with predominantly oil-fired plants. The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative purchased Kauai Electric in 2002. It is a member-owned non-profit organization. It has committed to generating half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2023. Community solar farms provide another alternative to insure local control of electricity production and distribution.
Tesla may hold the technological key to reimagining Puerto Rico’s electric infrastructure. It and other solar companies have already started to donate equipment to restore power for pumping water, treating sewage, refrigeration, and hospital care without waiting for the grid.
Tesla’s Elon Musk envisions a power system in the US that relies on a synergy among solar panels, home batteries, and electric cars. He also envisions moving away from large-scale power plants and grids in favor of distributed systems and microgrids. Developing renewable energy in Puerto Rico will give him a chance to see how viable his vision is.
How microgrids work
A microgrid is a small, self-contained electrical system. It has a clearly defined boundary. In the early days of electric power, all municipal systems were stand-alone microgrids that generated and used electricity locally.
Our current macrogrid grew as it became apparent that interconnection provided less expensive and more reliable electricity. A system of large power plants far away from population centers could transmit power over long distances.
No one ever actually designed our grid. Like Topsy, it “just growed.”
It allows customers to purchase the cheapest electricity available. Chicago customers at any given moment might be using electricity generated in New Jersey. Unfortunately, a problem in the grid can cause a large-scale blackout.
Solar and wind power have disrupted operation of the grid. It has been difficult to integrate electricity from intermittent sources with electricity from the various kinds of generators power companies have long used. But with storage becoming more readily available, this objection has become obsolete.
With grid-tied rooftop solar systems, utilities have had to pay homeowners for the excess energy their solar panels generate. Devising a system everyone regards as fair and workable has been contentious, to say the least.
But in principle, solar panels and other distributed energy resources can enable a system of microgrids that can interconnect or disconnect as conditions dictate. If one microgrid goes down, the outage will remain local.
In New York City, ConEd has launched a pilot program to combine homeowners’ solar panels into a utility-scale “virtual power plant.” Even the nation’s growing number of electric cars can contribute to grid stability through an international vehicle-to-grid communication standard.
And so if Puerto Rico can avoid getting bogged down with political bickering and lawsuits, it can serve as a model for how to create a more resilient grid.
No one can prepare for a Category 5 hurricane—let alone two in a single month. Still, a more resilient electrical system, designed with Puerto Rico’s geography and cultural identity in mind, will enable a much quicker recovery in the future.
Can Puerto Rico overcome a colonial past to build a greener grid? / John Farrell, Greentech Media. November 6, 2017
How Puerto Rico’s power crisis ends / Jessica Conditt, Endgaget. September 30, 2017
Microgrids: an old concept could be new again / Kennedy Maize, Power. August 1, 2017
Hurricane Maria. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Soldier repairing pole. Public domain. US Army photo.
Solar panels on Walmart roof. Some rights reserved by Walmart
Microgrid diagram. Public domain. US Air Force photo illustration by Jeff Pendleton