It’s been nearly three weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated much of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and things still don’t appear to be getting much better. U.S. citizens across the island still do not have access to some of life’s most basic necessities: food, clean water and power. By some estimates, nearly 90 percent of the island is still in the dark with little more than a glimmer of hope that power will be restored any time in the near future. How is this possible and what will it take to prevent a crisis like this from occurring again?
The challenges to Puerto Rico’s energy economy began long before Hurricane Maria barreled through the island on Sept. 20. The local utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, otherwise known as PREPA, was facing massive financial struggles with more than $9 billion in debt, resulting in a vulnerable and outdated grid.
Being an island province, Puerto Rico is also subject to limitations because of geography, thereby forcing PREPA to rely on imported petroleum for a majority of power production across the region. This dependence upon petroleum for electricity production drove rates two to three times higher than the U.S. average.
In that same year, only 2.4 percent of PREPA’s power production was fueled by renewable resources such as wind, solar and hydroelectric. Therefore, the actual physical infrastructure of Puerto Rico’s grid was incredibly vulnerable to devastating storms such as Maria. In this setup, the utility was producing a majority of its power from a few centralized power plants and distributing via thousands of miles of transmission lines. When the small number of power plants or vulnerable sections of transmission lines become immobilized during a storm, a large majority of the service territory is without power. Therefore, rebuilding the grid in Puerto Rico to pre-Hurricane Maria conditions would be irresponsible. As was previously proven, this setup is incredibly vulnerable to strong storm conditions. It’s only a matter of time before Puerto Rico gets hit with another storm of this magnitude, knocking out infrastructure again.
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So what are the smart infrastructure solutions designed to prevent a crisis like this from occurring again?
The answers can be found right here in our backyard. The Research Triangle Region is often seen as the world leader in smart-grid and clean-tech innovation, with more than 350 companies specializing in this space. Many of them are providing solutions catered toward vulnerable and challenging areas across the world.
To point to an example of grid resiliency developed and deployed right here in our region, lets take a look at Okracoke Island. In 2016, PowerSecure, based in Wake Forest, teamed up with the N.C. Electric Membership Corp. to create an innovative solution designed to help keep the lights on for Okracoke Island residents in times of emergency. This solution consists of 15kW of rooftop solar tied together with 500kW of Tesla batteries. The system is designed to produce power from the rooftop solar panels and use that power to charge the bank of Tesla batteries.
This innovative design, otherwise called a “microgrid,” has the ability to offset the intermittency of renewable solar power by providing a steady flow of electricity from the batteries. These batteries can be used to provide power during the evening hours when there is no solar power available or during the day to provide a steady flow of power to the grid.
This system was put to the test this summer when a construction contractor severed the transmission line delivering power to Okracoke Island. While the island was evacuated of tourists, this microgrid was able to keep the lights on and power crucial loads for the residents of the island.
Larger-scale solutions of this nature could be deployed all across Puerto Rico to alleviate the need for thousands of miles of transmission lines vulnerable to high winds and severe storms. The integrated solar aspect of each of these systems could also help to drive down costs for residents by allowing them to become more self-sufficient and less dependent upon imported fossil fuels. This technology could help save lives, reduce further financial woes, and prevent the same situation from recurring again.
The technology is proven; the financials make sense. Now’s the time to drive action with North Carolina’s innovation and willpower at the helm.
Matt Abele is the communications and events manager at the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster.