Puerto Rico’s Power Grid: To Rebuild or Replace

Just throw the whole island away! That’s how some Puerto Rico residents are perceiving the current administration’s attitude in regards to their situation post Hurricane Maria. More than half of the island is still in darkness or working with a severely reduced power supply, and many residents (roughly 200,000) have taken steps to abandon their homes, jobs, and families to head to the mainland. In retrospect, the power grid on the island has been severely outdated and under-maintained for decades. So, the question stands whether to repair and improve the existing grid, or to scrap it and replace it with more sustainable measures.

The U.S. territory’s administration has been in a constant battle with the Federal Government to obtain the FEMA funding necessary to make any type of significant impact on rebuilding its infrastructure, which is yet another hurdle the small Caribbean island must overcome before proper grid planning can commence. After being clipped by Hurricane Irma and then taking a direct hit by Hurricane Maria, the storms collectively knocked out 80 percent of the island’s power transmission lines, leaving every single resident on the island without power, some of whom never recovered after the first storm. As of today, only 26 percent of the island’s power has been restored. Before the Power grid can be rebuilt or repaired, the overall infrastructure of the island must first be rebuilt/repaired. After the category 4 storm hit, virtually nothing remained standing.

There is a mix of perspectives regarding the approach to rebuilding the island’s power grid once the necessary infrastructure is in place. On one hand, there is massive opportunity to replace the entire grid with more sustainable micro-grids, which rely heavily on solar generation. Micro-grids also show promise to prevent large scale outages when the main grid goes off line by limiting the outage to a specific area; the micro-grid will continue to supply power via battery packs to the other parts of the grid, leaving them virtually unaffected. These systems can be up and running within a second and a half of an actual outage occurring. The setback with replacing the power grid is time. It will take years of planning and implementation to reconstruct a new power grid on the tiny island, and time is something Puerto Rico does not have much of. There are still several remote parts of the island that have been without power since Hurricane Irma touched down in September. A much quicker yet less reliable solution is to make repairs and improvements to the existing grid to get power back to residents by early 2018. Due to a 10-year recession and the administrative utility blunders of an ancient grid system, the outlook of such a massive undertaking is daunting to think about.

Visionary and tech pioneer Elon Musk has sent over Tesla equipment to offset the lack of grid infrastructure in critical parts of the island. Before Hurricane Maria, the island received only 2 percent of its electricity from renewable energy resources. Musk, as well as others, want to use Puerto Rico as a model for a completely sustainable island. Tesla has done it before for much smaller islands and states that the implementation doesn’t face any scalability issues. Hospital del Nino in Puerto Rico is one of the first implementations of this project, and now, the hospital is able to generate and store energy. From a scientific and financial standpoint, implantation of solar energy and micro-grids would give the U.S. territory a better chance of surviving storms and provide cleaner, cheaper energy. From a maintenance standpoint, it is much easier to restore energy to a smaller grid spanning a neighborhood or a small town that it is to restore power to an entire island.

From a financial standpoint, and given the lack thereof, it’s not within Puerto Rico’s budget to replace its entire grid system. The current administration has limited funds, and FEMA’s abundance of red-tape restrictions limit the use of the emergency funds already distributed. The current utility company (Puerto Rico Energy Commission) was in debt long before the hurricanes hit and continued on a downward trajectory just maintaining its current grid infrastructure. With workers also being affected personally by the effects of the storm, the labor force has dwindled. Even with companies like Tesla, Duracell, and Vivint Solar willing to pick up the mantle to help Puerto Rico build, they come at a steep cost and will most likely leave a 22.3 billion dollar bill afterward, a bill that Puerto Rico cannot afford to pay given its current financial crisis. On the consumer side, a move to a 100 percent renewable grid will be more expensive to transmit, ultimately driving up costs for the poor and wealthy residents alike. The cost of transmission will almost triple the current cost.

With all these concerns looming, the most reasonable approach to getting power back to the people of Puerto Rico is to rebuild the grid back the way it was. It will be cheaper, quicker, and easier to implement than a complete replacement of the grid.

Ameer Baker

Author Ameer Baker

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