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article imageThe answer to rebuilding Puerto Rico's power grid? — Renewables

By Karen Graham     Sep 29, 2017 in Technology
San Juan - Not only is Puerto Rico in the midst of a humanitarian disaster, but with the Island's electrical grid basically destroyed by Hurricane Maria, now is the time to rebuild a new grid using renewable energy sources.
Hurricane Maria destroyed 55 percent of the island's transmission towers that support the high-voltage power lines and 90 percent of the distribution network, according to utility experts who have assessed the damage. Other Caribbean nations have suffered the same fate as Puerto Rico.
“For the most part, these island grids were completely devastated, and it will be four to six months before most of them can power their islands completely again,” said Chris Burgess, director of projects for the Islands Energy Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute, reports the Washington Post.
Puerto Rico Power Authority workers repair power lines in Loiza  Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico Power Authority workers repair power lines in Loiza, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico's electrical grid destroyed
With the U.S. island territory's antiquated and expensive electrical grid wiped out and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, now bankrupt, it is going to be a huge challenge if the grid is only going to be "repaired."
Ken Buell, director of Emergency Response and Recovery with the U.S. Department of Energy said the island's power plants survived the hurricane, and PREPA has conducted “a good portion of their damage assessment, which is the first step in power restoration." This statement contradicts President Trump's announcement on CNN when he said all Puerto Rico's power plants were destroyed.
While the first order of business is getting power restored to hospitals and government facilities, the health and safety of the people is of prime concern. “The government’s main focus is on the health and safety of the citizens,” Buell says. “Security is an issue. People are getting pretty desperate.”
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, has estimated it will take four to six months to get power restored across the territory. That is a long time to be without power — there will be a huge impact on businesses, livelihoods and the island's economy. “There's no money coming in and you've got these big bills ahead,” Buell says. “It's going to be a problem.”
A microgrid array consisting of 5 328 solar panels powers Ta u Island in American Samoa.
A microgrid array consisting of 5,328 solar panels powers Ta'u Island in American Samoa.
There is an answer — a clean power grid
Moving away from a centralized power grid to microgrids built around renewables like solar and wind energy, along with battery storage is now the quickest and cheapest way to restore power. Just look at what was accomplished in Florida after Hurricane Irma, and in India after the monsoons.
READ MORE: Irma will put $3 billion worth of power grid updates to the test
However, as Think Progress says, it appears likely the Trump administration will miss out on this unique opportunity, instead, bemoaning the fact that it will take billions and months and months to restore what was already broken in the first place.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, speaking at an event in Washington, D.C. for National Clean Energy Week on Tuesday said small, modular power plants being researched at national labs are the kind of technology he’d like to “expedite” for Puerto Rico’s rebuild.
NuScale power wants to build modular nuclear reactors small enough to fit on the back of a truck.
NuScale power wants to build modular nuclear reactors small enough to fit on the back of a truck.
“Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 [military cargo] aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up, and plug it in?"
Suffice to say that Mr. Perry is handing us a pipedream. Small modular reactors won't be ready for commercialization until sometime in the 2020s, and they will be expensive. Nor will they be small. At 650 tons, pushing one out the back of a C-17 won't be that easy, either. Puerto Rico needs help now.
Renewables just make sense
“You look at islands like Dominica, Anguilla and the other islands affected by the recent hurricanes, I’ve spoken to a couple of the utilities, and they say they would prefer to rebuild using distributed generation with storage, and just trying to reduce the number of transmission lines,” said Tom Rogers, a renewable energy expert at Coventry University in Britain.
He added, “Because that’s where their energy systems fail. It’s having these overhead cables.”
File photo of the solar panels.
File photo of the solar panels.
U.S. Department of Energy
The logistics in fueling power plants on islands is often overlooked. Even when the weather is perfect in the Caribbean, the islands have an energy problem. Fossil fuels, like diesel or heavy fuel oil are used to run the power plants, and because there are no fossil fuels on the islands, it all has to be shipped in, making electricity very expensive.
“They have energy prices which are some of the highest in the world,” Rogers said. “And that has a massive economic impact, especially as a lot of these islands’ economic dependence is on tourism, which introduces a high energy demand for their hotels, in particular from air conditioning loads.”
READ MORE: Duke Energy Florida will remake grid into resilient two-way grid
Puerto Rico could become a model for the use of renewable energy. Having wind, solar and batteries to store the electricity — with fossil-fuel backup ready to go if and when needed, along with small microgrids powered by renewables linked to the main grid would be far more sensible.
Not only is wind a very predictable source of power, but being located in the Tropics makes Puerto Rico perfect for the use of clean power. “A PV [photovoltaic] system installed in the tropics will generate over one and a half times more than exactly the same PV system installed in the higher latitudes, say in Washington or Europe," Rogers said.
File photo: GR s 2.5 MW Turbine
File photo: GR's 2.5 MW Turbine
GE Renewable Energy
This model has been used before in the U.S.
The Oceana Energy turbine at the Tanana River test site dates back to 2015 in Alaska. While Alaska is not an island, it does have many remote communities.
These communities have been a test project that resulted in the creation of hundreds of microgrids that can connect to a larger grid but also can operate independently of one. The project has enabled many of the communities to switch from expensive fossil fuels that had to be shipped into a cleaner, cheaper source of energy.
The village of Point Lay  Alaska.
The village of Point Lay, Alaska.
Indian Mariners Project
“When we are facing the sort of infrastructure destruction we have seen this hurricane season, it only makes sense to give some pause before reinvesting in the exact same system that proved too vulnerable,” Gwen Holdmann, who directs the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said by email.
Specifically referring to Puerto Rico, she said, “If the system were redesigned around microgrids incorporating local power production, there would still be losses, but the number and duration of outages due to severe weather events would decrease.”
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