Electrifying an Island

Challenges arise as Puerto Rico rebuilds its energy infrastructure.

Laura_Sanchez_Editor

On the morning of April 17, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) announced that less than 3% of its customers were without power—a small victory in the wake of Hurricane Maria. It seemed as if the island had entered the final restoration phase following the largest power failure in US history. And then the lights went out. Again.

According to the New York Times, when an excavator working in Aguirre came too close to a fallen transmission tower, the resulting electrical fault caused a massive grid collapse that plunged the island’s 1.5 million customers into darkness. Only a handful of areas powered by microgrids remained illuminated.

Puerto Rico’s electrical grid is fragile and overly centralized—a scenario that puts tremendous strain on a few large, fossil-fueled generating units. As evinced by last Wednesday’s power failure, one fault can bring down the entire network.

An IEEE Spectrum article explains that in the 1970s, when tax incentives lured US companies to the southern portion of the island, generation facilities were installed to support the influx of industry. However, when the tax incentives ended, the factories left. Today, a majority of the island’s population lives in the north. A decrepit network of power lines, weakened by insufficient maintenance, connects the two locations, delivering power to customers after crossing the island’s rugged interior.  

Since Hurricane Maria hit September 20, 2017, Puerto Rico has lost a total of 3.4 billion customer-hours of electricity service, according to an analysis released last week by the Rhodium Group. Wednesday’s event marks the fourth major outage to paralyze the island since Hurricane Maria.

Energy industry officials long felt that the island could serve as an experimental testbed to help engineers reimagine and redesign the electrical grid. However, they also foresee significant challenges with stabilizing the existing generators, securing funding, and establishing new regulatory policies.

What suggestions do you have for redesigning and rebuilding Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure? DE_bug_web

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