Can Renewable Energy Bring Power Back to Puerto Rico?

By Hannah Glenn
October 23, 2017
Renewable Energy in Puerto Rico

Life in Puerto Rico is staggering to its feet after Hurricane Maria struck on September 20th. In a direct hit, Maria obliterated power lines and triggered a humanitarian crisis of previously unseen proportions in the U.S. territory.

Around 85 percent of residents are still without electricity, and with almost no cell service. Puerto Ricans are struggling to survive and largely cut off from the world. Most people in Puerto Rico still have no running water, no way to store food, and hospitals are running on diesel generators.

Recovering from disaster on an island is particularly difficult. Importing supplies and fuel for  generators is more expensive and takes longer. This is especially true with extensive damage to the roadways in Puerto Rico. Current estimates are that power will not return to the 3.4 million residents until March 2018.

Power in Puerto Rico before Maria

Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure was faulty before the hurricane. There were 2,478 miles of transmission lines stemming from power plants, and 31,485 miles of distribution lines across the island. Many of those lines were in difficult-to-reach mountainous and forested areas.

Power outages were frequent as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is bankrupt – at least $9 billion in debt. As funds and skilled workers dwindled, PREPA struggled to repair what was broken, rather than proactively maintain the grid.

Post-storm, recovery is a painfully slow process. Some regions must be rebuilt by expensive methods such as flying in poles and lines by helicopter.

How solar is helping Puerto Rico now

Jigar Shaw, president of Generate Capital, sees the solar industry as growing and better able to respond to emergencies, as compared to just a few years ago. He noted in Greentech Media, “We have the ability to do things we weren’t previously able to do.”

SEIA is coordinating solar efforts to help with immediate relief. Companies are donating solar generators, solar lanterns, other equipment and even installation services.

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Could energy in Puerto Rico be more secure with solar?

The state of energy in Puerto Rico has many people asking if Puerto Rico’s power grid could be rebuilt in a smarter way. The advantages of solar and a more resilient grid could drastically improve recovery time, reducing casualties and illness.

While any hardware can be damaged during a storm, solar systems did hold up considerably better than transmission lines. Many solar installations in Puerto Rico sustained only 10 to 15 percent damage, as opposed to the 80 percent damage to PREPA’s transmission lines.

How renewable energy could help stabilize Puerto Rico long term

Distributed or off-grid systems are another way solar could strengthen energy resilience on the island. Building microgrids would prevent the entire energy system being knocked out.

As an example, if one or two bulbs on a string of twinkle lights are loose or missing, the whole string loses power. But with several short strings, repair is focused on a smaller area and sections light up again sooner.

Local solar power systems wouldn’t be brought down with the entire grid. They could stay online, or be brought back up more easily. Battery storage would be an even more independent use of solar with onsite fuel-free backup.

Renewable energy to the rescue

Characteristically bold, Elon Musk of Tesla offered to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s electricity grid. Though ambitious, it is potentially viable. It may require new ways of attracting investors – which seems to be what Musk is doing.

Overall, the solar industry is unifying and hopefully lighting Puerto Rico up sooner. Looking forward, rebuilding durable off-grid solar panel systems could ensure a safer, stronger electricity infrastructure for tomorrow.

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Hannah Glenn

Written By

Hannah Glenn

Hannah Glenn is a writer specializing in renewable energy and healthcare. When not 10 inches from a computer screen, Hannah loves hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and reading National Geographic.

More articles by Hannah Glenn

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