October 2, 2017 Read More →

The Clear Case for Microgrid Development in Puerto Rico

MicroGridKnowledge.com:

With the focus now on survival, most Puerto Ricans are probably not thinking about long-term energy planning. But “there is a huge opportunity, one or two years out, for building the grid in a more sustainable way,” said Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Kunkel is deeply familiar with Puerto Rico’s power woes, which began long before the hurricane. Brought to the island two years ago to help an environmental organization, she has been focused on utility rate and resource planning issues.

Rebuilding will not be easy, she warned. The utility was besieged by debt prior to the hurricane and has an old-school grid, heavily reliant on aging, oil-fired power plants.

“It was a horrible lump for them that it was the worse hurricane since 1928. That would have done damage to the best of grids,” Kunkel said.

Besides lacking capital, Puerto Rico’s electricity industry struggled under competing visions for the future even before the storm, according to Kunkel. PREPA wanted to retain a centralized grid, but switch power plants from oil to liquified natural gas (LNG). Since the island has no LNG, the utility sought permission to build a terminal so that it could import the fuel.

Others like Kunkel advocated for more decentralization and renewable energy to strengthen the system.

No decision had been made on the LNG terminal before Hurricane Maria. Kunkel pointed out that had it been built, chances are it may have been damaged by the storm.

“Hurricane Maria shows the dangers of the path PREPA was trying to go down,” she said. “The frustrating thing to me is that it’s unreasonable to say they didn’t see this coming. It is a tropical island that was in the path of hurricanes and had a decrepit grid running on a shoe string. We’re seeing the consequences of that.”

But now Puerto Rico could remake itself into “the poster child for distributed energy,” she said.

“If you’re talking about building a grid from scratch, I don’t know why you wouldn’t rebuild it in a much more decentralized way,” she said. “We have the technology now to do it. You certainly can set it up in a way where hospitals and emergency centers would not go dark and would not be relying on diesel fuel in an emergency. Generators are good backup, but only when they do not run out of fuel.”

Microgrids typically have more than one form of generation. On a sunny island, that’s likely to include solar and batteries, along with backup generators.

More: The Sky Fell in Puerto Rico. The Microgrid Argument is not Chicken Little

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