Puerto Rico shines a bright light on the shortcomings of the world’s electricity infrastructure

On August 7, 2018, an untrimmed tree fell on an electrical transmission line in Puerto Rico, leaving 130,000 people in San Juan without power for an hour and a half. Big deal, right? When compared to the immense and long-lasting damage done to the island’s grid by Hurricane Maria the year before, a brief power outage caused by one damaged line hardly seems worth mentioning.

Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But this was a big deal. A single tree knocked out power to a third of the people in Puerto Rico’s capital. That this could happen so soon after the city’s grid was re-built is incredible, especially in light of the many terrible months of suffering the island had experienced after the storm. Puerto Rico’s post-Maria blackout was by far the most severe in US history. Nearly all the power on the island was lost after hurricane winds tore down towers and flooding damaged substations, and many were without power for months. (In fact, according to Puerto Rico’s main utility, it wasn’t until nearly a year later, on August 14, that the last customer had power restored.)

The damage done by the blackouts was more than just inconvenience or lost economic productivity. Thousands of US citizens died—as many as 4,600 according to The New England Journal of Medicine. (A recent government report puts the number at 1,427, well more than the official figure of 64). These lives were lost because people were deprived of necessary medical treatments, vital air conditioning, life-sustaining drugs, and effective sanitation. The aftermath of Maria showed that access to reliable energy is a matter of life and death.

This is why the brief August outage in San Juan—and the many others the island experienced as it worked to restore power—is so important. Because it raises some crucial questions: why, after the hard lessons of Maria, is Puerto Rico still reliant on a centralized grid that is vulnerable to total failure when struck by a powerful hurricane? In the face of these predictable storms, why isn’t Puerto Rico adopting a more distributed approach to electricity generation that will make it more resilient in the future? And if thousands of lives and billions of dollars is not enough to spur change, what will it take to begin implementing the technologies that have already been developed in clean energy and batteries to create a more robust and resilient energy system?

Puerto Rico shines a bright light on the shortcomings of our national energy infrastructure. It should be an urgent warning to the government to rethink our energy policy and support initiatives to promote clean, local energy. Here are four reasons why:

#1 – Modern electric grids are surprisingly fragile

The rest of the US grid isn’t as outdated and underfunded as Puerto Rico’s but it is still long overdue for an upgrade. Like everywhere else in the world, the U.S. grid is out of date and at risk of extended outages from extreme weather and malicious attacks. Centralized power plants distributing electricity through long-distance power lines makes widespread failures all too easy. In Puerto Rico, this failure was caused by 150 mph winds and flooding. But damage to our grid can happen in many ways, in many places. Ice storms can knock down trees and lines. Wild animals, like raccoons, can take down entire electrical substations–something tens of thousands of residents have discovered in the last few years. Then there’s the threat of increasingly likely cyber attacks on our energy infrastructure (see my article on the increasing cyber threats to grids around the world). Transitioning to a system in which the energy production and transmission is more distributed and localized will help keep the lights on after a natural or man-made disaster. 

#2 – Fossil-fuel based electricity creates millions of tons of toxic waste

A five story pile of coal ash ash in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Source Hilda Llorens

A five-story tall mound of toxic ash, the byproduct of burning coal, sits uncovered near the town of Guayama, Puerto Rico, the site of one of the country’s main power generators. No one knows exactly how much of the lead, thallium, chromium, mercury, and arsenic contained in this ash was blown into the air or washed into the surrounding soil when the storm hit, but deep concerns over pollution from such ash heaps have been raised for years. This, too, is not just a Puerto Rico problem. In the mainland US, burning coal accounts for about 30% of our power, generating 100 million tons of ash a year – most of which winds up in “ash ponds.” There are approximately 1,400 such ponds in the country. Several well-publicized catastrophic failures have dumped millions of gallons of coal ash “slurry” into nearby communities.

#3 – Grid technology is woefully out-of-date

The power grid was a marvel when it was first constructed. But while there have been innovations over the years, like increasing capacity and distance of power lines, or incorporating natural gas, the grid still, in many respects, operates as it has for almost a century. Innovation in this space moves much too slowly, a consequence of outdated regulations and a preference for the status quo. This conservative approach is understandable—utilities and governments are keenly aware of the cost of blackouts and are prone to stick with what has worked in the past. But as the Puerto Rico blackout showed, the current system doesn’t work nearly well enough.

The good news is new technologies have more than proved their viability in recent years, and Puerto Rico is an ideal place to implement them. For one, it is an island awash in sunlight, a perfect place to capitalize on solar power. Additionally, it’s mountainous, rocky terrain—which makes electrical transmission towers difficult to reach and repair—argues for localized production. Puerto Rico offers a perfect opportunity to introduce and develop proven distributed microgrid technologies that would lower costs, reduce pollution, and make the energy system more resilient in the face of increasing threats from hurricanes. Shoring up Puerto Rico’s energy would save lies and reduce disaster relief in future emergencies. Unfortunately, FEMA, which is overseeing the grid repair, is mandated by law to only replace broken grid components, not upgrade them. So while the cash-strapped government of Puerto Rico and the private sector have explored more forward-thinking projects to meet Puerto Rico’s future power needs and challenges, the largest source of financial support and investment in Puerto Rico—the federal government—must sit on its hands.

It’s a frustrating situation: little has been done to protect the people of Puerto Rico from the next large storm. Money will be wasted, and more lives may be lost, when taxpayers are forced, again, to rebuild an outdated grid after the next big storm hits the island. Perhaps worst of all, we have lost a great opportunity to build a next-generation grid that can serve as a global model of clean energy. Which leads to the final reason we need to re-think our grid . . .

#4 – The current grid architecture doesn’t work for 1.1 billion people

Our electricity infrastructure has developed slowly, over decades, with massive investment from government. But there are still 1.1 billion people on the planet who have no access to electricity. That means 1/7th of human beings today can’t read a book at night, or use a computer, or recharge their phones without walking long distances (because, yes, more people have mobile phones than electricity). This is a huge market for those innovators who can figure out how to deliver reliable, clean energy in the low-income regions of the world. It’s also an alarming statistic for the environment if we continue to pursue a business-as-usual approach of fossil-fuel-based power. Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, but it is also a place beset by the poverty and infrastructural challenges faced by developing countries. It should be a model for future energy policies.

We can do better… and we are slowly starting to do so

Loma Del La Nina Mariana Community Center

I want to end on a positive note because many private energy innovators have taken the opportunity created by Puerto Rico’s tragedy to offer a vision of what’s possible. In April 2018, much of the island was still without power and the portion of the grid that had been restored experienced a temporary failure. But the lights were still on at the community center in Humacao, the first town to bear the brunt of the storm when Maria made landfall. This was because Sonnen, a German company specializing in home and small business energy storage, had installed a solar microgrid there after the storm. It was one of 11 Sonnen microgrid sites on the island, including a rural school and a health center. “I think the irony wasn’t lost on anyone that we were sitting there with a full suite of electrical power while the rest of the island did not have it,” said Sonnen’s director of business development in Latin America. Results have been so successful, some of the communities using Sonnen’s technology have even chosen to remain off the grid. And Sonnen has bigger plans to develop a network of microgrids that will allow communities to share their energy, and build a more robust, distributed system.

How quickly Sonnen’s network, and those of other companies like Tesla and AES, can be set up will depend on the cooperation of the government and Puerto Rico’s energy utility, which has recently decided to privatize. Hopefully, their work in this area will inspire bold government action in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands before the next monster hurricane emerges.

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