The images of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath in Puerto Rico are shocking—trees stripped of their foliage, splintered buildings, drowned cattle, and the twisted remnants of cars. The destruction is unfathomable.
When the hurricane’s winds and torrential rains hit the US territory on September 20, they not only destroyed buildings and flooded the island; they knocked out power to all of the 1.57 million accounts served by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
It was the sort of circumstance that power industry experts have warned about for decades: catastrophic grid collapse and darkness, a lack of alternative power sources, and diesel-reliant backup generators that failed when fuel became scarce. Hurricane Maria turned a “worst-case” hypothetical scenario into a reality. And in doing so, it exposed the vulnerabilities of centralized electric grids everywhere.Electric grids are evolving rapidly, disrupted by regulatory changes, distributed generation, renewable portfolio standards, and evolving technology. Energy storage is uniquely positioned at the heart of all of this change. Download Greensmith Energy's White Paper to learn more about improving economics and demystifying energy storage systems.
Puerto Rico operates a traditional grid, dependent on oil-fired power plants. Miles of long-distance transmission lines carry voltage from power plants on the south side of the island to populated areas in the north. PREPA has indicated that 50% of customers may still be without power in two or three months from now. In fact, much of the island’s power may not be fully restored until next year.
Prior to the storm, the utility was deeply in debt. In addition, the island’s electricity industry was caught between conflicting visions: the utility hoped to preserve the centralized grid structure with the conversion of its power plants to natural gas, while outside organizations promoted microgrids—hyper-local energy systems that rely on a mixture of diverse energy resources and renewable energy—to strengthen the system’s resiliency.
Today, with 80% of the island’s transmission and distribution system destroyed, Puerto Rico has an opportunity to rebuild. With supportive funding, it may transform its power infrastructure into a decentralized model by creating microgrids with diverse generation sources. Furthermore, as it rebuilds, the island could serve as a proving ground for new technologies.
Elon Musk has expressed interest in supporting the reconstruction efforts. The entrepreneur has stated via Twitter that his team has successfully helped rebuild small power grids using grid-independent solar systems in American Samoa and Hawaii that reduced demand on traditional diesel-fueled grids. Governor Ricardo Rosselló responded: “Let’s talk. Do you want to show the world the power and scalability of your #TeslaTechnologies? PR could be that flagship project.” Following a telephone conversation, it appears that the leaders may proceed with plans to collaborate.
Google parent company Alphabet Inc. plans to do its part as well by deploying an internet-by-balloon project. It recently gained FCC approval to fly 30 balloons over Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in order to help improve communications by replacing the thousands of cell phone towers knocked out of service.
As Puerto Rico rises from the rubble, new technologies and energy architectures are sure to emerge. What are your thoughts? Do you believe there will be opportunities for infrastructure enhancement as the island territory rebuilds?