Day 6

Puerto Rico's blackout offers a chance to build something better

Restoring power to Puerto Rico has been slow, politically muddled and expensive. But a proposal for a network of decentralized, renewable micro-grids could make the island a model of sustainability.
Tesla, the electric car company founded by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, stepped in to bring power back to the Hospital del Niño in San Juan using the company's solar panels and battery technology. (Tesla/Twitter)

Still recovering from Hurricane Maria, some energy experts see the blackout across Puerto Rico as an opportunity to remake how the island generates electricity, with a new focus on decentralized renewable energy.

The U.S. island territory has struggled to repair its power grid after the storm toppled power lines across the island. Two months after Maria, the island's electricity is currently running at less than 50 per cent.

The old electric grid relied on imported natural gas, which in recent years has grown steadily more expensive — so expensive that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) filed for bankruptcy in July.

A man throws wood into a fire near a mobile phone antenna tower and where people gather to use their mobile phones, after Hurricane Maria hit the island and damaged the power grid in September, in Dorado, Puerto Rico. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

"Puerto Rico was caught in this kind of vicious circle of not being able to ... break clean from the past, chasing after any resources they could find to be able to pay for fuel to run these old units, they didn't have any more capacity to borrow," Luis Martinez tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Martinez is the former legislative director for Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board. He's now a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and he says we can see what a new grid might look like from efforts that are already underway.

Tesla, the electric car company founded by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, stepped in to bring power back to the Hospital del Niño in San Juan using the company's solar panels and battery technology.

In doing so, Tesla created a micro-grid, essentially an energy grid that operates independently of the main electricity system. A micro-grid can contribute energy or take energy from a larger grid or another connected grid, but it largely operates autonomously.


A series of interlocking grids

Beyond Tesla's efforts, German company Sonnen has contributed 15 micro-grids, something they had planned to do prior to the arrival of Hurricane Maria.

A Houston-based solar panel company, Sunnova, has also begun delivering batteries to the approximately 10,000 customers it has on the island.

And then there are the independent communities on the island that are attempting to build battery systems and set up solar panels that could sustain buildings without the main grid.

"There's folks that are targeting fire stations, so first responders. Or folks that are looking at medical clinics or folks that are looking at schools," Martinez says.

According to Martinez, these initiatives could help rebuild a broken system through a series of interconnected micro-grids that can share energy when needed, but that aren't reliant on the central utility. The end result could look like a series of miniature power plants, with production, distribution and storage done locally, based around their own grid.


Renewable energy on the rise

Puerto Rico might be primed for an even larger shift away from oil and gas entirely.

PREPA currently spends $1 billion on imported fuel, according to Fast Company, and until 2012, petroleum was required for up to 75 per cent of all electricity generated on the island. As a result, electricity costs for island residents are higher than in the continental U.S.

Renewables, by contrast, have become much cheaper over the last decade.

"The build-out of renewable energy in Puerto Rico would keep more money on the island and could be an important tool in helping to revitalize the economy," says Cathy Kunkel, a consultant for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in an interview with Fast Company.

A combination of NASA satellite images shows San Juan Puerto Rico's typical night before (L) and on the nights of September 27 and 28, 2017 after Hurricane Maria made landfall (R). The images above show widespread outages around San Juan, including key hospital and transportation infrastructure. (NASA/Handout via REUTERS)

Hawaii faces the same challenges that Puerto Rico does, and has put forward a proposal to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2045, though they haven't perfected their system yet.

"It's a really different way of doing things from a central power station ... but they're solving those problems," says Martinez.

One criticism of the micro-grid system in Puerto Rico is whether it makes sense logistically to use micro-grids as a means of restoring power across the island. Peter Fox-Penner, the director of Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University, wrote in an op-ed for Salon that the fastest way to return power to most of the island will likely be through restoring the original grid first.

He argues that it's too expensive and complicated to attempt to shift the way the grid is structured at this stage in the recovery effort.


Reconstruction priorities

"The only logical way for Puerto Rico ... to [develop] a series of resilient and clean micro-grids is to first get the entire grid functioning and then to create sections that can separate themselves and operate independently when trouble hits," wrote Fox-Penner.

Workers of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority (PREPA) repair part of the electrical grid after Hurricane Maria hit the area in September, in Manati, Puerto Rico. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

On top of that, PREPA needs to run any decisions by a fiscal oversight board that could complicate an attempt to make micro-grids part of government policy. One alternative to renewable energy being discussed is to double-down on liquefied natural gas.

Martinez thinks that would be a bad move, and that what's needed is a moment to rethink how energy is stored and delivered more broadly.

"There's an opportunity to do things differently this time around," says Martinez. "If they go for it."

For our full conversation with Luis Martinez, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.