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In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical system offer lessons for boosting energy security

Aerial photos of Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria

August 13, 2019 — After Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017, one of the first things I noticed outdoors have been my neighbors working collectively to clear the streets of fallen timber and particles. It was troublesome to see the injury and not feel an immense sense of unhappiness. Like others throughout the U.S. territory, only those with functioning turbines had electricity, and no one might contact relations as a result of the strains of communication we down. Those of us without turbines couldn’t refrigerate our food, mild our houses or use our loos in a traditional approach.

In line with official estimates, some 3,000 individuals died because of the devastating occasion. Operating water turned inaccessible in lots of houses. Roads have been blocked. Across the island, power strains have been downed, and energy crops suffered vital damages, shutting down communications methods, visitors lights and hospitals, among different very important assets in day-to-day life.

Hurricane Maria destroyed or broken much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, together with its centralized energy system. Picture courtesy of NASA

It took almost a yr for the government-run Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA, also called Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica or AEE), which is the one power firm in Puerto Rico, to restore electricity all through the island. This was the most important and longest energy outage in U.S. historical past.

As scientists recommend that weather will in all probability turn out to be more extreme and weather-related pure disasters are more likely to intensify within the coming many years, getting ready power techniques for — and helping them get well from — weather-related disasters is an increasingly necessary matter. In the case of hurricanes, we will study some worthwhile lessons from what Puerto Rico has gone by means of within the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Lesson 1: Keep Infrastructure

Imported fossil fuels meet roughly three-quarters of Puerto Rico’s power demand, in line with the U.S. Power Info Administration (EIA).

Puerto Rico’s electrical system is very centralized, in response to Lionel Orama-Exclusa, an engineering professor at the College of Puerto Rico (UPR) Mayagüez campus and committee member of El Instituto Nacional de Energía y Sostenibilidad Isleña. The institute brings collectively specialists throughout disciplines and campuses inside the College of Puerto Rico system to deal with power policy and sustainability.

Chart of biggest blackouts in US history

Click on to enlarge. Credit score: Sean Quinn | Ensia

Earlier than the hurricane, solely 2% of the territory’s electrical power got here from renewable power sources. There rest was from petroleum (47%), natural fuel (34%) and coal (17%). And since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico a few decade into an economic crisis, the electricity infrastructure was already weak. The EIA found that earlier than the hurricane, PREPA’s electricity turbines have been 28 years older and skilled outage rates 12 occasions greater than the U.S. average.

“Different nations should take a look at themselves within the mirror of austerity,” says Arturo Massol-Deyá, a biology professor at UPR Mayagüez and long-time environmental activist with Casa Pueblo, a community-based organization based greater than 30 years ago to protect natural assets in Puerto Rico.

“By not listening to infrastructure and never having maintained it, by not doing [the] issues which might be mandatory, when a hurricane occurs like this, the results are catastrophic,” Massol-Deyá says. “Other nations have to be cautious once they manage their financial disaster and the remaining, not to place their nations able of elevated vulnerability before pure events.”

Lesson 2: The Worth of Decentralization

A decentralized electrical system would improve resiliency, says Orama-Exclusa.

Aguirre Energy Plant for example, is likely one of the four most important power crops on the island. Situated in the southern coastal city of Salinas, it provides electrical energy to the San Juan metropolitan space in northeastern Puerto Rico. The Los Angeles Occasions reported that the facility plant was already neglected and suffering failures before the hurricane. After the hurricane, Aguirre was not working; approximately two months after Hurricane Maria swept over Puerto Rico, PREPA was still working to restore a powerline from Salinas to the north. 

Workers repairing electrical grid in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

It took billions of dollars and almost a yr to restore energy all through Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria slammed the U.S. territory in September 2017. Photograph courtesy of U.S. Division of Protection | Air Pressure Grasp Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts

Hurricanes typically interrupt shipments, “so you’ve oil shortages, diesel shortages, fuel shortages, coal shortages,” says lawyer and activist Ruth Santiago a long-time Salinas resident with ties to the Comité Dialogo Ambiental, a gaggle that works in the direction of environmental safety and sustainability. “It makes a lot more sense to have your power era closer to where it’s going for use, as opposed to long-distance. … [T]hat signifies that communities now must be concerned in power era.”

Orama-Exclusa says the Puerto Rican authorities should use the Island Power Playbook, which is part of the U.S. Division of Power’s Power Transitions Initiative and recommends a framework for an power transition that communities can use. It additionally consists of classes discovered from numerous islands which were making power modifications, and templates and worksheets for proposed work. For instance, the playbook showcases the creation of “clear and well-defined interconnection policies and procedures” within the U.S. Virgin Islands, which in 2010 set a aim to scale back their reliance on fossil fuels 60% by 2025.

Lesson three: Renewables Add Resilience

Renewable power sources particularly are a focal point of the continued dialogue concerning the resiliency of the sources of electricity on the island.

Orama-Exclusa says that renewable power sources, reminiscent of solar energy, can increase resilience. A system based mostly on renewables might help the creation of micro-networks of power which might be more resilient than centralized distribution methods. Some households have already began utilizing solar power, so they can rely much less on the primary PREPA grid. And in line with National Public Radio, Puerto Ricans are anticipated to spend greater than US$400 million on solar power in the subsequent 5 years.

Poverty, nevertheless, continues to be a big obstacle for many individuals, says Massol-Deyá.

Puerto Rico solar resource map

Puerto Rico gives substantial opportunity for the adoption of solar power technologies. PVOUT = potential photovoltaic electrical energy era. kWp = peak photovoltaic energy. kWh = kilowatt hour. Photo voltaic useful resource map © 2019 Solargis

Several groups, together with Cambio, Comité Dialogo Ambiental, Sierra Membership Puerto Rico, and the Institute for Power Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), are supporting a civil society power proposal referred to as Queremos Sol, which calls for a “speedy move to rooftop solar communities … that might empower native communities and local individuals,” says Santiago.

But Massol-Deyá and others are involved that regardless of the benefits that renewables supply for enhancing resilience to future hurricanes, the Puerto Rican government is perhaps shifting away from renewable power sources.

Eye to the Future

After the hurricane, the government set up the identical infrastructure that was current before, Massol-Deyá says. If near a Class three hurricane or above have been to make landfall in Puerto Rico now, “the nation’s electrical system can be simply as destroyed as it was in 2017,” Orama-Exclusa says — though recovery could be faster as a result of PREPA staff have an concept of what’s wanted to get the system up and operating again after such an occasion. There’s additionally the question of what is going to occur if PREPA is privatized, because the Puerto Rican government is making an attempt to promote it.

Groups from totally different sectors of society have proposed or created plans to information Puerto Rico’s electrical future. A number of of the plans are tied to the Puerto Rican authorities: the Plan Integrado de Recursos (PIR) or Integrated Useful resource Plan (IRP); the Restructuring Help Settlement (RSA) to restructure PREPA’s debt; and a regulation signed in April 2019 by then–Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to determine the island’s power public coverage. These three frameworks contradict each other, Orama-Exclusa says; which can prevail stays to be seen.

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Eighteen organizations, together with Espacios Abiertos, Cambio, and the Instituto Nacional de Energía y Sostenibilidad Isleña, have asked that the restructuring agreement be cancelled because it might benefit bondholders and improve the cost of electrical energy for shoppers, Metro Puerto Rico reported. The agreement was additionally criticized in a letter signed in June 2019 by 36 U.S. congressional representatives, arguing that the deal must be rejected. The representatives expressed concern in that letter that the settlement “will improve Puerto Ricans’ electric payments and stymie improvement of renewable power,” based on a report in The Hill.

Orama-Exclusa is worried that the utility will transfer from petroleum to pure fuel. “That may be opposite to the philosophy of the rest of the world, because even nations with no sunlight are shifting in the direction of solar power,” he says. His concern isn’t unfounded: El Nuevo Día reported in July 2019 that development is underway for a brand new electrical power plant in northern Puerto Rico, which can run on pure fuel. 

In accordance with Orama-Exclusa, Puerto Rico’s state of affairs means that governments ought to agree on one imaginative and prescient for his or her power future before establishing a regulatory framework and renegotiating money owed. Additionally, he says that the imaginative and prescient ought to be agreed upon by citizens by way of an open, participatory system. Then the government and policymakers have to adopt that imaginative and prescient and make power plans that go together with the vision.

If this strategy is put into place in Puerto Rico, the extra resilient power production and distribution system that results might help the territory cope with future hurricanes better and bounce again quicker than was the case with Maria. Maybe then there might be less struggling and fewer deaths like people who have left a deep wound within the hearts of numerous Puerto Ricans, whilst they attempt to maneuver forward and put together themselves for a possible future hurricane.

Editor’s observe: Mariela Santos-Muñiz wrote this story as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the challenge was Aleszu Bajak.

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