Could Renewable Energy Help Puerto Rico’s Power Grid?

Visitors to Casa Pueblo, a community center in this mountain hamlet, can tour the solar-powered meeting rooms, listen in on the solar-powered radio station or catch a documentary at the solar-powered movie theater. Later, they could lunch at one of Puerto Rico’s first fully solar-powered restaurants just down the street.

On an island gripped by energy anxiety, Casa Pueblo is a calming oasis.

“This is the model we want for the rest of the [island],” said Alexis Massol-González, founding director of Casa Pueblo, a community center and renewables advocacy group. “It would be an energy revolution.”

Hurricane Maria blasted through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, battering the island’s outdated power grid and plunging the U.S. commonwealth into darkness for nearly a year. The lack of power has been a major challenge for Puerto Ricans recovering from the storm and was a key factor in widespread fatalities after the hurricane. The death toll from the storm is 2,975, based on estimates from a study by George Washington University researchers.

Officials everywhere have grappled with how to quickly restore power after a major storm. Teams of utility workers were still working this week in the Florida Panhandle to restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers left powerless by the 155 mph sustained winds of Hurricane Michael earlier this month. Tens of thousands of homes have already regained power at a pace that has surprised some observers.

But in Puerto Rico, restoring power has been a slower, much bigger project that entails, in many cases, completely rebuilding what was a fragile system to begin with. Federal officials have spent more than $3 billion to end the longest blackout in U.S. history and return the Puerto Rican power grid to pre-storm conditions. Now comes the long, tough task of improving the system – at a cost of billions of more federal dollars – to avoid future massive blackouts. How the grid is rebuilt will be a key question in Puerto Rico’s recovery from Maria.

Puerto Rican officials have estimated it will take another $26 billion to upgrade the island’s energy grid, though that money has not been approved by Washington.

“There are a lot of temporary patches that have been done,” said Sergio Marxuach, public policy director at the Center for a New Economy, a San Juan-based economic think tank. “It’s functional, but the work on the permanent fix has not started yet.”

At the center of the island’s grid rebuild effort is what to do with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, an agency racked by allegations of corruption and $9 billion in debt. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has proposed privatizing parts of the electrical system, including its oil-powered generation plants. Other suggestions include switching the system to natural gas.

But these plans don’t include a clear path to renewable energy sources, leaving the system vulnerable to future storms, said Cathy Kunkel, an analyst with the Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, who co-wrote a July study on this issue. An improved power grid in Puerto Rico should include “microgrids,” or clusters of customers around the island who could disconnect from the larger system if a storm hits and generate power on their own, she said. That strategy would begin to shift the power grid away from its reliance on oil and toward renewables.

Such a massive shift would be difficult, costly and time-consuming but not impossible, Kunkel said. Lawmakers in Hawaii, an archipelago of 1.4 million residents, passed a series of energy bills three years ago directing the state’s utilities to switch to 100 percent renewable energy resources by 2045.

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Source: USA Today