Microgrids and resilience in Puerto Rico

By Steve Hanley, Clean Technica, 30 Sep 2017

Hurricanes Irma and Maria combined to deal a crippling blow to Puerto Rico. 10 days later, electricity is still out to most of the island. Food and water are stockpiled in San Juan Harbor, but there is no diesel fuel for the trucks that need to take them to where they are needed. Grocery stores have no food to sell and no refrigeration for perishables.

puerto rico

Power & Politics

The starving residents of Puerto Rico are left to wonder if Uncle Sam really cares a flying fig leaf about them as the #FakePresident blathers and blusters about debts owed to Wall Street and whether relief supplies should be allowed in that are not carried in American-owned ships because of a law passed by Congress in 1920.

By all estimates, it will be months before the electrical grid on the island is repaired — a process that is projected to cost billions of dollars. Some isolated areas could be without power for up to a year.  Why? Because Puerto Rico is broke. Most of its citizens exist on one form or another of government assistance funded by Washington. Aside from tourism, the island has few economic avenues available to it. A chronic lack of funds has forced the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to put off critically needed upgrades and repairs to the electrical grid for decades. For all intents and purposes, the creaky old system got broadsided by the hurricanes and just collapsed.

What’s Ahead For Puerto Rico?

The question now is what to do about it? Puerto Rico depends almost entirely on oil-fired generating plants, resulting in some of the highest utility rates in the nation — second only to Hawaii. It is estimated 12% of the electricity it does generate is lost to theft or chaotic billing procedures, which is 3 times the rate among mainland utility companies. PREPA itself is $9 billion in debt. Where is the money going to come from to rebuild the grid?

PREPA has virtually ignored renewable energy, getting only 3% of its energy from wind or solar today.  “A microgrid’s multiple generation sources and ability to isolate itself from the larger network during an outage on the central grid ensures highly reliable power,” a recent report from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association found. 

Microgrids & Resiliency

Isn’t it time to rethink that century-old centralized fossil fuel generation and overhead model? A system of microgrids powered by solar or wind would add resiliency to the island’s electrical supply. Even if some are damaged by storms, the rest could still function, limiting the scope of the catastrophe. Battery storage could be the final piece of the puzzle. Although expensive, it only needs to get installed once. Oil-fired generating plants need bunker or diesel oil shipped in by tanker every day in perpetuity.

Surely, eliminating some or all of the cost of fuel could help finance long-term solutions like battery storage, couldn’t it? In theory, yes. But there is the $9 billion debt issue that needs to be resolved first. Got to protect the Wall Street bankers the way they protected people in the global economic meltdown of 2008, right?

“You look at islands like Dominica, Anguilla and the other islands affected by the recent hurricanes, I’ve spoken to a couple of the utilities, and they say they would prefer to rebuild using distributed generation with storage, and just trying to reduce the amount of transmission lines,” said Tom Rogers, a renewable energy expert at Coventry University in Britain. He has been an expert lecturer in energy at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.

“Because that’s where their energy systems fail. It’s having these overhead cables. They have energy prices which are some of the highest in the world,” Rogers says. “And that has a massive economic impact, especially as a lot of these islands’ economic dependence is on tourism, which introduces a high energy demand for their hotels, in particular from air conditioning loads. A PV system installed in the tropics will generate over one and a half times more than exactly the same PV system installed in the higher latitudes, say in Washington or Europe,” he says.

Alaska Model

Alaska is not an island, but it does have hundreds of remote communities. It has been a laboratory where microgrid technology can be tested in the real world. Many of those villages now rely on renewable energy rather than diesel and oil-fired generators. “When we are facing the sort of infrastructure destruction we have seen this hurricane season, it only makes sense to give some pause before reinvesting in the exact same system that proved to vulnerable,” Gwen Holdmann, who directs the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said by email. The Alaska model could apply just as well to Puerto Rico, she says. “If the system were redesigned around microgrids incorporating local power production, there would still be losses, but the number and duration of outages due to severe weather events would decrease.”


Rebuilding the same old system leaves a lot of emissions for people to breathe.  Tom Heggarty, a senior analyst at GTM Research says: “The potential market for displacing oil with new sources of power supply is very large,” he says. “We estimate that there are around 3,600 islands around the world where oil products currently provide a large proportion of power supply.”

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