A Renewable Recovery for Puerto Rico? - The Years Project

A Renewable Recovery for Puerto Rico?

By Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech

Photo National Guard - 1st Sgt. Waldemar Rivera

When I think of my grandmother’s house I think of colors. Bright white paint, sharp blue stripes on canvas awnings, the earthy red of the tiles lining her floor, and green. Mostly green. The house was encased in palm and avocado trees. Something that everybody took pride in. A love for flora is something typically Puerto Rican. Those that have to leave their island find themselves compiling a collection of plants in their new homes. Little by little the green comes back to them.

“Look at the vegetation,” my mother once told me as we drove around San Juan. “You can’t find this anywhere else in the world.”

But that is gone now.  Hurricane Maria left the entire island in darkness. Mass flooding destroyed thousands of homes, businesses, roads and communications towers. It also destroyed the nation’s only tropical rainforest, El Yunque National Forest.

But nature always finds a way to restore itself and, if given the chance, so will Puerto Rico’s infrastructure.

The island’s electrical grid was in poor condition before María and PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, wanted to invest heavily in natural gas to kick its dependency on fuel oil and coal. But the IEEFA, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and others say that this makes no sense. Not only would supplies of gas have to be shipped to the island but another centralized grid would still be vulnerable to storms like Maria.

Instead Puerto Rico should opt for renewable, resilient energy system. Decentralized, powered by sustainable energy, and ready for the next Maria, whenever it may come.

The disaster of Hurricane Maria has given Puerto Rico a chance to be an example to the world. But will the flexibility and resilience of renewables be allowed to shine? Or will the needs of the past limit what the island’s new grid could accomplish?   

Late last week, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Roselló, got in touch with Elon Musk, the CEO of the electric car, solar and energy storage manufacturer Tesla to consider that question.

The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too,” Musk tweeted.

Tesla was able to help build a large solar energy plant on the island Kauai in Hawaii. It did so by selling clean energy to the island’s electric company. The island was able to sustain itself on solar energy during the day but used generators at night. To solve this issue Tesla offered solar panels and 272 52-megawatt-hour Powerpacks, large batteries that can store electricity during the day and discharge it at night when the solar energy is not so abundant.

Musk has pledged to send hundreds of such batteries to Puerto Rico. But there are no exact numbers yet or an estimate as to when they could be delivered.  Solar energy, battery storage and microgrids that connect them would not only help make Puerto Rico more resilient, but ultimately provide electricity for a lower cost than fossil fuels, a critical feature for an island whose economy is in ruins. But in order for this to happen, more substantial efforts are needed from the federal government.

And that’s something members of both parties seem to want. In an interview on CNN, last week Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who had just returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, called for more action. “The greatest thing we can do is, if we are going to spend resources, stand up a resilient electrical grid that will actually satisfy the needs of their economy.”

In September, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has reintroduced the Advancing Grid Storage Act which would accelerate investments in research and installations of clean energy storage systems, including grid-scale batteries. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced three new pieces of legislation to help renewable energy development. One of them, the Flexible Grid Infrastructure Act, would call for the Department of Energy to find more ways to make electrical grids more resilient during natural disasters and less likely to have disrupted energy supplies. It would also provide states and utilities with the resources to upgrade the flexibility and reliability of the grid.     

Without further efforts Puerto Rico will be haphazardly rebuilt and the grid will be replaced with one equally vulnerable to intense storms, which will only become more frequent and powerful.  And as American taxpayers are finding out, that will cost us all.

Everyone who cares about rebuilding Puerto Rico should make a fully renewable grid one of their goals, so that the island can truly become green once more.