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Puerto Rico’s Energy Crisis: Trump Tweets While Musk Sends Powerwalls

Replacing Puerto Rico’s shattered power grid with solar micro-grids is a no-brainer.

The collapse of the Puerto Rican electrical grid is a textbook example of what happens when a monopoly utility lets its infrastructure fall apart. In July, even before hurricane Maria struck the island, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) defaulted on a 2014 deal to restructure its debt. PREPA’s ancient oil-burning power plants are notoriously inefficient and prone to break down, and the situation was only made worse when corrupt managers purchased low-grade oil sludge, charging consumers for cleaner, higher quality distillates and pocketed the savings. Everything PREPA could do wrong, they have done wrong. Puerto Ricans have been paying an insanely high price for low-quality service for years, and now, they are paying the ultimate price.

Since hurricane Maria crippled PREPA’s shamefully decrepit grid, more than 95% of Puerto Ricans are without power. That means water pumps can’t deliver clean water. There is no refrigeration for food or medications. Stephen E. Flynn, the founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, told Newsweek:

“Anybody who’s already vulnerable and going for a long period of time without power and is reliant on medications, electronic monitoring, medical devices … as the days march on—and the days are marching on—they become a much more frail population.”

Estimates are that most Puerto Ricans will be without power for up to six months. It is not unrealistic to think that civil society could easily begin to break down without the restoration of electricity. The response to this crisis needs to be massive, and it needs to be fast, and PREPA simply can not be relied upon to restore power. A better solution might be to simply dissolve the failed government-owned utility and open up the development of a new, more robust solar-based distributed micro-grid energy system, built by private developers and managed by a new consortium of non-government energy professionals.

Puerto Rico’s Current Solar Assets

Puerto Rico currently has 15 utility-scale power plants. One coal-burning plant, three diesel plants, four heavy oil-burners, one natural gas plant, four solar facilities and two wind farms.  That breaks down to a mix of about 96% shipped-in fossil fuels and slightly less than 4% domestically produced renewable wind and solar power. On a Caribbean island with average wind speeds of 5.9 miles per hour (the same as Texas, the number one producer of wind power in the US) clear skies more than 65% of the year, and day lengths that vary only between 11 and 13 hours a day, Puerto Rico is made for a renewable energy economy, and yet Puerto Ricans pay among the highest electricity rates in the nation for shipping in dirty fuel to burn in outdated generators.  

The Oriana Solar Farm, Puerto Rico’s largest solar generating plant, came online just one year ago, providing 45 MW of capacity. San Fermin Solar Farm produces 26 MW, AES’s Ilumina project comes in at 24 MW and the Windmar Ponce facility is the smallest utility-scale project on the island at 4.5 MW. All of the solar and wind facilities on the island are privately owned, and although their rapid deployment has been impressive, all of these large renewable generators are hobbled by a grid that was barely functioning before Maria, and which seems to be non-existent in the wake of the storm. Sadly, there is no way to deliver all of the capacity from these facilities to the people who need it, thanks to the shameful mismanagement at PREPA.

Repairing the Grid: Will it ever happen?

“We have started work. We are recovering slowly but we are recovering,”  PREPA CEO Ricardo Ramos said in an interview with “Closing Bell.”

“In the beginning, the process will move quicker as areas that were less affected by the storm are identified and restored, Ramos said. Priorities are also being set, with power now back at 15 hospitals…We’re meeting the priorities but certainly this is a first stage. I think the second step that we’re going to take now is going to be overwhelming,” said 

Here is what he really means: They hope to pick the low-hanging fruit and repair the less damaged sections first. Those will be in newer, higher-income areas. In poor and rural areas, it could very realistically be a year before service can be restored. If ever. PREPA may cease to exist in the meantime.

While President Trump Flounders, Solar Companies Lead

The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot. Large numbers of generators are now on Island. Food and water on site. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 28, 2017

“The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot,” President Donald Trump said in a tweet Thursday morning. What is his plan to restore power? Apparently, he has none. The administration has been under a shower of withering criticism for its slow and underwhelming response to the humanitarian crisis that is growing every day in Puerto Rico.  Meanwhile, an army of American solar companies are readying for a major mobilization to put Puerto Rico’s lights back on, despite the incompetence of territorial and federal governments.

What the solar industry understands is that small, distributed microgrids, using cheap, easy-to-install solar arrays and lithium battery-based storage can be powered up and operational in a fraction of the time it will take PREPA to reach some areas with new power lines. These types of microgrids are going up in villages across the developing world every day, and in the cases of recent disasters in India and Japan, microgrids have saved lives and transformed local economies in the wake of large natural disasters, providing a silver lining that will last generations.

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said at an event in Washington, D.C.Tuesday that small nuclear power plants would be his preferred tech for Puerto Rico’s rebuild.

“Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular (nuclear) reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up, and plug it in? Hopefully, we can expedite that.”

One problem with Secretary Perry’s idea- those small nuclear reactors don’t exist.

While President Trump’s energy secretary espouses fantasy technology that won’t be ready for prime time until the next decade,  Bloomberg reports that Tesla is already sending hundreds of its Powerwall battery systems to Puerto Rico be paired with solar panels to create rapidly-deployed microgrids. The company has employees on the ground to install them and is working with local organizations to identify locations.And for those who might think Elon Musk is capitalizing on the tragedy, you might be right…but it’s not about publicity. It’s about Musk’s personal vision to bring on disruptive change. And if you think he can’t do it, you might not know that Tesla is providing 90% of the power needed for the island of Kauai from a solar and battery storage microgrid, and he is hard at work at doing the same thing in Australia.

A Tesla Powerpack connected to solar panels on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. (Photo: Tesla)

More locally, Sunnova, a residential solar installer with 10,000 customers in Puerto Rico, said it was working with the governor to try to restore power off-grid in the short-term, but said the destruction also creates an opportunity to create a new, renewable-friendly grid.

“Everybody can agree that what the future of the new power industry (will not) look like what was there before,” John Berger, Sunnova CEO, told Reuters. Jigar Shah, president of Generate Capital stated that:

“That’s what is different today than during the Haiti earthquake, or some other disasters recently. The solar industry is just much larger, We have the ability to do things we weren’t previously able to do.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) posted an announcement about its efforts to coordinate with solar companies to donate equipment and installation services. SEIA is developing partnerships and coordinating with agencies to most efficiently and effectively deliver the supplies that are needed.

The solar industry has a unique opportunity to provide support to victims of recent storms. Here’s how: — Solar Industry (@SEIA) September 29, 2017

Leadership: A Stark Contrast

While President Trump tweets about the incompetence of the Puerto Rican government, he clearly exposes both how little he knows about the role of the federal government in the Puerto Rican political fiasco, and how little he is thinking about fixing the problem through new, leaner, more efficient market-based energy solutions. While politics cripples both Washington DC and San Juan, it will take real big-picture thinkers like Musk and the team at SEIA to see that the future of the Puerto Rican power supply is not left to corrupt and incompetent politicians.


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