October 12, 2017 Read More →

Frustration in Blacked-Out Puerto Rico With Electric Company’s Resistance to Change

GreenTech Media:

Three weeks since the storm, still only about 17 percent of Puerto Rico is with electricity. The lack of power has severely exacerbated a humanitarian crisis. Food sits rotting on shelves, the majority of hospitals are relying on generators, and with 40 percent of the island still without running water, the likelihood for disease has increased.

While the U.S. president has literally thrown paper towel rolls at the problem, private citizens and industries have stepped in to coordinate efforts. The renewable energy industry, for one, has seen aiding in the crisis as both a moral imperative and an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of its technology. Though some in the renewables industry have cautioned against putting the cart before the horse when so many lives are still in peril, many have also raised questions about the future.

Several companies and experts have seized on the power outages as a segue to discuss longterm resilience and the potential for distributed energy to protect island grids. Cecilio Aponte, a current fellow at the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, said the destruction has compelled him to consider a future rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s grid.

When I catch up with Alejandro Uriarte, president of San Juan-based solar company New Energy, he’s just returned from a meeting with cell phone providers about how renewables might power cell towers now running solely on diesel. When Uriarte describes the status of electrical distribution on the island, he speaks of complete devastation. “Everything is gone,” he said.

Renewable installations, though, fared a bit better. Uriarte said all of his solar installations sustained some damages, affecting maybe 10 to 15 percent of the panels. That’s a much better percentage than the estimated 80 percent of transmission lines taken down. But Uriarte notes that because nearly all existing renewable systems were connected to the island’s now-destroyed grid, most are still unable to produce energy.

“Our work has certainly changed from selling grid interconnected solar equipment to selling storage for those systems that were already installed, or selling solar-plus-storage to be off-grid until the grid comes back,” said Uriarte. “Then we can talk about interconnecting them.”

Most renewable companies with a presence on the island are in immediate repair mode. Although Puerto Rico, like all Caribbean islands, relies heavily on fossil fuels for power, the island did have 215 megawatts of solar before the storm. Companies such as Sunnova, Tesla (New Energy is a certified Tesla installer), and Sonnen have residential and small-scale projects. Sonnen said all its systems fell offline after the hurricanes. It’s working on stabilizing its existing fleet, and has started working with solar installer Pura Energía to provide new microgrid systems for sale and some for free. Sunnova was also working to repair parts of its 10,000 installed systems.

Many other companies and clean energy trade associations have also pledged to divert supply to help in the short-term. After a call for coordinated efforts, the Solar Energy Industries Association received 160 responses with offers for help. The Distributed Wind Energy Association (DWEA) is coordinating micro-grid deliveries from three manufacturers with funding from United Wind. And on Friday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk spoke on the phone with Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, about how the company’s solar and battery technologies can contribute to immediate relief efforts, and possibly remake the grid entirely.

Clean energy manufacturers and resilience experts are asking what can be done to harden the island’s grid even in the initial stages of Puerto Rico’s recovery.

“Typically, investments that are made right after a storm, almost in emergency mode, you can see ten years later those investments have remained,” said Roy Torbert, principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Islands Energy program. “Ask these questions now, so the investments you make for the long term are the right way to go.”

Though renewable installations on islands like Puerto Rico did sustain damage, renewable companies and advocates say distributed sources that could function apart from the grid would be easier to repair and get back online than centralized power and distribution. To brace for a storm, Torpert said nacelles on wind turbines can be tilted down and the blades turned away from the wind so they don’t overspin.

Even before the storm, Puerto Rico’s electric grid was a delicate system. Its utility and sole electricity provider, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), has become notorious for its $9 billion bankruptcy and poor management. The Puerto Rico Energy Commission (PREC) enshrined its issues in a 2016 report, writing “the severe outages, deferred maintenance, and a lack of experienced staff have resulted in an increasingly brittle transmission system.”

According to Torbert, the aftermath of the hurricane “requires an immediate reckoning” with PREPA’s difficulties. Almost everyone interviewed for this story expressed concerns with the functioning of the island’s utility.

“The entire organization, PREPA, stem to stern, top to bottom, is incapable of carrying out its mission,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “It’s largely a function of upper management and the toxic effect it has on morale and competencies of the workers.”

Uriarte, too, expressed frustrations, specifically about the lack of commitment he sees from PREPA on transitioning to clean energy. “They have never come out against renewables,” he said. “They always say they’re friendly to renewables. But in practice, they are not.”

The 2016 report from PREC notes much of PREPA’s work had become “triaging” in the place of preventative maintenance. In 2016, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. That act created a board that this summer rejected a restructuring deal for PREPA’s debt.

“That decision was encouraging in that it suggested support in Washington for an actual path to recovery for the power authority,” Sanzillo wrote in an opinion for the Hill.

More: Can the Clean Energy Industry Protect Puerto Rico From Maria-Scale Damage?

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