Hurricane Maria aftermath. The storm damaged the island’s already deteriorated electrical infrastructure. (Image credit Puerto Rico National Guard via Flickr)

 

Electricity is something most of us take for granted until it suddenly is shut off, and then it’s like our lives come to a screeching halt- no TV, no Wi-Fi, and no way to recharge mobile devices. While a power outage may leave us in the dark for a few hours or perhaps a few days, it’s nothing compared to what people are going through in Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico. The hurricane struck landfall on September 20th and not only destroyed homes and businesses, but the island’s already dilapidated electrical grid, so much so that nearly 88% of those living in Puerto Rico are still without power over a month later.

 

PREPA (Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) is the island’s sole power company responsible for providing electricity to over 3-million people using coal, diesel, and heavy fuel oil as well as a smattering of wind, solar and hydro plants. It’s also $9-billion in debt with 58% of their annual budget going to fuel purchases alone to keep the power running, further adding to that debt. Most of Puerto Rico’s power plants can’t provide power to the masses, not because the plants were damaged themselves but because their electrical grid relies on power lines suspended from utility poles and it’s those poles that took the brunt of the hurricane-force winds.

 

A majority of them have been destroyed, which means most local districts and nearly all remote towns rely on generators to power them until the electrical grid can be repaired, however, that could take months or even a year or more to accomplish. This poses the question of whether or not they should rebuild an aging infrastructure? Doing so would be a costly endeavor (estimated in the billions) and redesigning a new electrical grid around fossil fuels would cost even more, especially with an island buried in debt. Perhaps Puerto Rico’s electrical grid solution lies in microgrids- a localized grouping of electrical sources that can operate connected to the national grid or independently, supplying centralized power to a single town.

 

Microgrids can tie alternative energy sources to the main electrical grid or become self-sustaining on its own. (image credit Junger via Flickr)

 

The practical solution would be to implement a green-energy platform, one that could sustain not only the national grid but one that could supply power independently in case disaster strikes, and it has over and over again for Puerto Rico- 54 hurricanes in total (tropical depressions included). Apparently, Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosello agrees as he stated in a recent Time article, “We can start dividing Puerto Rico into different regions... and then start developing microgrids. That’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s certainly going to start lighting up Puerto Rico much quicker."

 

A perfect example of microgrid integration and implementation is Kodiak Island off the coast of Alaska, which is one of the busiest commercial fishing ports in the nation and hosts the largest Coast Guard base in the US. Add to that a population of over 13,000 and the power requirements quickly add up. Kodiak’s power is generated from 100% renewable energy source, primarily hydro and wind, which saves them roughly $22-million per-year over using fossil fuels. Some businesses on the island, such as Kodiak’s fishing port have turned to their own mini-microgrids to supply backup power as well. The port recently turned to European renewable power provider ABB to integrate a battery backup solution that ties into the island grid but also maintains a steady supply of power using a unique flywheel system, which also facilitates the use of a massive electrical crane that would otherwise cause brownouts around the island.

 

According to ABB, their solution incorporates a pair of 1MW stabilization generators based on their spinning flywheel design and inverters to store short-term energy to absorb and/or inject both real and reactive power onto the microgrid. The same could be done with Puerto Rico as the island already has 21 hydroelectric plants positioned around the country as well as wind turbine generators. Not only that, Elon Musk is providing energy through Tesla’s Powerwall battery banks and solar panels, which are going up all over the island and are already powering a children’s hospital in San Juan.

 

Implementing solar, hydro and wind renewables and coupling them into area-specific microgrids is a feasible power alternative that Puerto Rico could sustain itself with, which would also serve to protect the electrical grid when hurricanes hit the Caribbean. No, it’s not a quick solution that will provide power to everybody in the short-term, but it’s certainly a better option than repairing a dilapidated outdated electrical infrastructure that will remain a risk the next time disaster strikes.   

 

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