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Planning for Better Energy Outcomes for Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico faced electrical outages for months following Hurricane Maria in 2017.  The consequences turned out to be substantial, and sometimes the matter of life or death.

Fatalities occurred as a result of failures to power healthcare machinery and also from lack of refrigeration, impediments to water processing, and more.

Five years later, Puerto Rico continues to have frequent power outages. Hurricane Fiona caused further outages, but most customers were back up within a few weeks rather than many months. While the improvement over the post-Maria situation is good news, it is not good news that Puerto Rico’s electric grid continues to be in a fragile condition so long after its hardening and repair were announced as goals.

Energy costs are also unsustainably high, particularly considering the high rate of poverty on the Island.

However, there has been some progress recently.

Central planning

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm traveled to Puerto Rico last week to meet with stakeholders and leaders in hopes of coming up with a practical plan. According to a statement released by the U.S. Department of Energy, Secretary Granholm discussed “ways to address existing short-term hurdles that will help enable priority and urgent projects to break ground ahead of the next hurricane season.”

Secretary Granholm’s visit also included remarks at the Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico (SESA) Summit at which she emphasized that one of her goals as Secretary of Energy is to “help ensure the island realizes the vision it already has for its energy system:  reaching 100% renewable energy by 2050.”

Discussion panels were organized by the Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Hispanic Federation of Puerto Rico, and the PR100 Advisory Group.

PR100 has taken on the task of coming up with feasible options for future energy systems, with the goal of narrowing the options down to three possible pathways by December 2022. ‘It will be up to Puerto Rico energy system stakeholders to choose a path forward and implement it,” the project points out. “Through year one and into year two of the study, the team will evaluate hydropower and pumped hydro storage, marine energy, and may address additional technologies such as floating solar PV, bioenergy, and ocean thermal technology conversions.”

With attention both to long-range planning and short-range obstacles, the goal is to make a practical plan and see it implemented on the Island, working toward conservation, increase in the use of renewable energy, and resilience in the face of likely future natural disasters.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has chosen Agustín Carbó Lugo as the Director of the new Puerto Rico Grid Modernization and Recovery Team.

“The PR Grid Modernization Team, led by DOE, will support Puerto Rico in rebuilding an electricity grid that is more resilient, more secure, and capable of supporting 100% clean electricity by 2050,” the DOE announced.

Carbo, who lives in San Juan, has served as Chairman of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission (now the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau), Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Solid Waste Authority and Assistant Regional Counsel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Dallas, Texas. He will be involved in ay to day operations in collaboration with the territorial government.

Solar power successes

The story of solar power during Hurricane Fiona adds promise as Puerto Rico seeks a long term reliable solution to a historic problem. Solar power installations kept the lights on for residents of Puerto Rico, including a case reported in Time in which a solar array powered a dialysis machine — a life and death situation.

NPR reports that about 50,000 solar installations have been implemented since 2017, “[a]nd almost all that equipment appears to have continued supplying electricity while the island’s central power system went dark, according to market participants and industry observers.”

Studies show that, with over 200 hour of sun each month, Puerto Rico is capable of meeting all its energy needs with rooftop solar arrays. Some experts are suggesting that Puerto Rico’s experience is a “proof case” for solar energy, proving that this is a practical solution for the Island.

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