Technology

Forces of change sweep across Puerto Rico

 By Andrew Burger

Forces of fundamental, evolutionary change regarding the way energy is produced, distributed and consumed are sweeping across the U.S. Caribbean island territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year – the first time two Category 5 storms made landfall on U.S. territory in a single year in recorded history…

A host of private sector and non-governmental organizations are advocating for and working to lay the foundation of a new, digital, decentralized and “decarbonized” energy infrastructure in Puerto Rico, one that’s more efficient, reliable and resilient, as well as less costly and environmentally friendly.
Reports from solar, energy storage and renewable/hybrid mini-/microgrid developers in the field in Puerto Rico are encouraging. But June marks the official start of the hurricane season in the Caribbean and it appears that Puerto Rico’s utility is not well-prepared to weather a direct hit from another hurricane of Maria’s strength and scale. How well, or poorly, solar-energy storage and hybrid mini- and microgrids fare in the face of severe tropical storms remains to be seen.

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The devastating effects Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico (Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos, Wikimedia)

Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid

Some seven months after Hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico’s power and water grids, state-owned utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), in collaboration with U.S. federal agencies, including Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) and the the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had restored connections to 97.2 percent of the utility’s customers. That still leaves thousands of residents, mostly across the island’s interior, without access to grid power and/or public water services, however.
Compounding matters, a contractor’s bulldozer working to restore transmission lines recently severed a main line from PREPA’s power plant in Yabucoa, causing an island-wide blackout, the second in a month. The accident shined a light on the vulnerability of centralized power grids with single points of systemic failure.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Recovery Field Office and Task Force Restoration Group serve at the core of U.S. federal grid recovery and restoration efforts. The Army Corps was focused on restoring three, PREPA-owned, 25 MW power plants at Palo Seco and Yabucoa in the wake of the latest grid outage.
It has also been deploying temporary, primarily diesel-fueled, mini- and microgrids around the country at strategic sites around the country since they arrived a month or so after Hurricane Maria’s arrival.
The Army Corps is maintaining continuous operation of four microgrids that weren’t affected by the latest outage, as well as 884 diesel-fueled, emergency power generators at critical facilities, such as hospitals, schools and community shelters across the island, Maj. Catalina Carrasco of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Task Force Power Restoration Group explained in an interview.
Leading solar, renewable energy, advanced battery energy storage and smart grid companies are on the ground in Puerto Rico, as well. They’re partnering with local industry participants and disaster recovery/humanitarian relief organizations to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid and infrastructure using the latest distributed, hybrid and renewable energy mini- and microgrid technology and systems.

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A transmission and distribution specialist repairs power lines in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico (Master Sgt. Joshua DeMotts, army.mil)

Realizing an alternative, resilient, “green” energy vision

Solar photovoltaic (PV) energy and lithium-ion battery energy storage systems manufacturer and project developer Telsa is working with Resilient Power Puerto Rico and other local project partners to deploy its PowerPack energy storage systems along with solar PV power generation in under-served, rural communities that still lack grid access, for instance.
A non-profit, charitable organization, Resilient Power Puerto Rico was created by expatriate professionals with strong ties to the U.S. island territory in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s passage. Taking an innovative approach that addresses local grid power restoration modernization, Resilient Power Puerto Rico has been raising capital to finance off-grid and grid-connected mini-grids that rely on the combination of smart, solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation and battery-based energy storage in under-served communities affected by Hurricane Maria.
“We contacted the recipients of the donated solar energy installations shortly after the general blackout [on Apr. 18], and they all reported that the systems worked perfectly. Some didn’t even notice that there was a power outage. The operations in these community centers continued as normal thanks to the solar panels and the battery backup”, said Jan Curet, one of the volunteer project management staff that helped create and keeps Resilient Power Puerto Rico up and running.

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Tesla's PowerPack energy storage systems (Tesla)

Integral to carrying out these projects, Resilient Power Puerto Rico and partners train local residents to operate and maintain the mini-grids, then hand them over to them to operate and maintain.
Resilient Power reserves the right to access and assess mini-grid operations to ensure they comply with safety regulations and those governing charitable donations. Results and feedback from investors and investor-donors to date has been encouraging, to the degree that Resilient Power is expanding and scaling up its project development efforts.

Reliable grid power in a transient state

Similarly, the U.S. subsidiary of Germany-based, advanced energy storage technology and systems specialist Sonnen Batterie launched a charitable, humanitarian, hurricane relief initiative via which it’s working with Aguadilla, Puerto Rico-based solar energy systems specialist Pura Energia to install solar energy-battery energy storage microgrids in communities isolated from the utility grid, or had lost grid access when Hurricane Maria struck. Sonnen Batterie USA and Pura Energia have installed 1 MW/2.0 megawatt-hours (MWh) of solar energy-energy storage capacity in Puerto Rico to date, according to Pura Energia’s president Jose Vasquez.

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A solar energy-battery energy storage microgrid diagram (solarprofessional.com)

Adam Gentner, Sonnen’s director of Latin America business development, reported that the 11 microgrids project partners have installed to date continued operating during the latest grid outage. Gentner and project partners were in the rural town of Mariana de Humacao in the mountains of southeastern Puerto Rico when the utility grid went down April 18.
Utility grid power has not been restored for most of the town’s residences and businesses since Maria struck. The donated, solar-storage microgrid Sonnen and Pura Energia deployed continued to supply electricity during the latest outage, Gentner said.
“We did not realize there was a blackout as we had uninterrupted power provided by solar and batteries”, he explained.
Genter added he gets the impression of a deep and growing sense of frustration among residents regarding the inability of PREPA and authorities to provide reliable grid power. “We often talk about what we can do with our sonnen systems to create a distributed Virtual Power Plant ‘when the grid is stable’, but clearly stable is a transient state here”.

READ MORE: How Hawaii became a renewable energy model by Chris Dalby

Hawaii-Energy

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.