Sunday November 05, 2017

After the hurricane: building better power systems

Power lines down in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Power lines down in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. (Efraín O'Neill-Carrillo )

Listen 22:15

Electricity is something we sometimes take for granted. It's such a basic technology that we tend not to even think of it as a technology. But in the event of a natural disaster the power grid can be very vulnerable.

As we've witnessed during this most recent and destructive hurricane season, many were left without power. For some places in the path of those hurricanes, power has been restored while others are still struggling without electricity.  

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Six weeks after Hurricane Maria, 75% of Puerto Rico was still without power. (Efraín O'Neill-Carrillo)

This week, Puerto Rico's state power company cancelled a controversial $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings to rebuild the grid after that deal came under scrutiny.

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Efraín O'Neill-Carrillo

More than six weeks since the start of Hurricane Maria, much of the island is still without power.

Efraín O'Neill-Carrillo is a Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.

He says that about 75% of the island is still without reliable access to power and adds that "the main areas that are still really hurting are rural areas."  

Efraín hopes that Puerto Rico can move beyond the political bickering and focus on rebuilding a more sustainable power system.

"This must be an opportunity not to rebuild what we had before, which has been proven not resilient and difficult to recover, but to build something else."  

He's long advocated for a more renewable energy system in Puerto Rico. "We envision a future where many rooftop solar systems are used at all levels."

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(Efraín O'Neill-Carrillo)

Efraín wants Puerto Ricans to come together to envision that energy future.

"I'm not saying that we can go from almost zero renewables to 100% renewables but I think we can have a more diverse energy mix where renewables are the main player and big power plants have a supporting role."   

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(Efraín O'Neill-Carrillo)

Some have called Hurricane Irma the storm of the century. That hurricane caused widespread damage to Turks and Caicos and left many there with no electricity.  

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Gary J. Smith (Fortis Inc.)

Turks and Caicos is served by Fortis Inc., a Canadian utility holding company based in St. John's, Newfoundland that serves utility customers in five Canadian provinces, nine U.S. states and three Caribbean countries.

Gary Smith is the Executive Vice President of Eastern Canadian and Caribbean Operations of Fortis.

Immediately after Hurricane Irma, Gary directed the Fortis emergency response to restore the electrical grid in Turks and Caicos.  

"In the days leading up to Irma hitting the Turks and Caicos we had pulled the trigger on our plan," explains Gary, 

"And put a team of people together to respond, chartered the aircraft, put together the emergency backpacks and tools and equipment that were required to go and respond. We were trying to get on the ground very early to get there to get off to a very quick start."

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Day One of the emergency response effort in Turks and Caicos. Eddinton Powell, President and CEO of FortisTCI, talks to the crew. (Fortis Inc.)

Gary describes the logistics of getting all the people in place and getting equipment like hydro poles and trucks to a disaster zone as "the true magic to any response."

Fortis sent about 250 employees to Turks and Caicos from the company's utilities across North America and the Cayman Islands.

These employees volunteer to be part of emergency response teams well in advance of any disasters and often work in very difficult conditions facing issues like flooding or no running water.  

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Crews restoring power lines in North Caicos. (Fortis Inc.)

Restoring power following a natural disaster like a hurricane is a stark reminder of the basic importance of the electrical grid. Gary says, "If you think about the electricity supply it was always about making sure the light bulb comes on, the fridge works and the stove works."  

But today, he says, it's more about whether there's access to the internet, or cellphone service, so people can find out information about what's going on with the power outage in an emergency.