Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria caused widespread destruction on Puerto Rico, many island residents are still without housing, basic services, and electricity.
Rebuilding a crippled electrical grid is among the many challenges facing the island, home to 3.5 million residents. Even before Hurricanes Irma and then Maria struck, the grid was in very poor shape because of debt, a poorly trained staff, and a lack of maintenance. The Los Angeles Times, citing a report from a year ago, said that the Puerto Electric Power Authority appeared to be “running on fumes” and “desperately requires an infusion of capital … to restore a functional utility.”
That was before the storms. Now, getting Puerto Rico back on line will require the complete reconstruction of high-voltage transmission lines as well as downed poles and cables, said Mike Hyland, an official with the nonprofit American Public Power Association.
“It is going to be a long and arduous process and patience is the key word,” Hyland said.
In the meantime, the U.S. solar industry said it wants to help. The Solar Energy Industries Association said in a statement posted on its website that it was helping to coordinate relief efforts and asked that volunteers step up with contributions or other means of support. “We are developing partnerships and coordinating with agencies to most efficiently and effectively deliver supplies that are needed,” the trade group said.
Bloomberg Markets said last week that Tesla is sending hundreds of its Powerwall battery systems that can be paired with solar panels to Puerto Rico. (A photo published with a story by Business Insider shows a message spelling out “send Tesla” on a lawn near a ruined house.)
More microgrids might have helped
Greentech Media cited a statement from Generated Capital president Jigar Shah that most of the 88 megawatts of distributed solar and 127 megawatts of utility-scale solar already installed on Puerto Rico had been damaged in the storms but were still intact.
Because of their relatively small size and independence from the grid, microgirds are easier to get working again because they’re more localized. “It’s easier to bring all this back up after it’s been down when you have this more localized solution set,” Shah said. “You will have a lot of damage, but all the point sources are independent of each other. It doesn’t take the whole grid down.”
Offers of assistance from the solar industry were speedy, but the scale of the problem is enormous.
“If we had a demand for 50,000 solar residential systems in Puerto Rico over the next three months, I don’t know if the solar industry would say, ‘Here’s all the personnel and equipment to do that,’ ” said Shah. “They’re more capable of doing something material than they’ve ever been before, but it’s still on a philanthropically donated basis.”
The rebuilding effort will be huge, and it presents an opportunity to rethink the island’s energy system. According to a an article posted at Wired, Puerto Rico’s grid had some of the least sustainable fuels, and faced some of the highest costs, of any grid in the U.S. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that residential rates there in June were 19.88 cents per kilowatt hour, versus an average of 13.22 cents per kWh in the U.S. as a whole. Commercial rates were even higher — 21.43 cents per kWh.
Judith Enck, a former EPA administrator in the region that includes Puerto Rico, said that it was “absolutely imperative” that the Federal Emergency Management Agency not pay to rebuild an inadequate system. She said that improving the grid would include “massive new investments in wind, solar, geothermal, and other clean energy sources,” Wired said.