Puerto Rico needs microgrids and private buy-in for reliable energy

Puerto Rico needs microgrids and private buy-in for reliable energy
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Since one of the most devastating hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, power has been out on the island and may not be back online for months. Additionally, cell phone service is virtually not existent.

For this island of 3.7 million U.S. citizens, while they cope to get electricity from diesel generators and build a delivery system — decisions will have to be made on how to rebuild the Island’s electric grid and how it powers a rehabilitated water and sewer system.

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The usual approach is to rebuild the same system, just a newer version. But an opportunity exists to develop a system that will not only be less expensive but attract private capital so that it is “pay as you generate.” The 3,620 square mile island (midway in size between Connecticut and Rhode Island) with a population the size of Kentucky or Arizona provides opportunities to leap frog approaches that are already in the market place, albeit disaggregated across the United States today.

 

Segmenting Puerto Rico’s electric grid may be a much faster and more reliable rebuilding approach. The average number of minutes of power outages experienced by the average customer each year in a utility service territory is why electric utilities in Europe and Japan are integrating microgrids within their older electric grid systems.

According to Microgrid Knowledge, “The best performing European countries have outage numbers at or below 100 minutes. Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Company, which serves 45 million people — its 2014 reliability numbers of only 4 minutes. The average for the largest 15 American utilities, meanwhile, was about 179 minutes, well above that of Japan or any of the top-performing European countries.”

Providing dedicated, on-site generation to power critical infrastructure may be a parallel approach for speed of deployment and resiliency of the electric grid as well as the next Puerto Rican grid and water and sewage system. During a horrific, unplanned event, what do we want operating at all times? 

One of the first functions needed is communications — from cellular towers, government communications, cameras, and of course overall functionality of first responders — police, fire and emergency health support. Another is pipeline pumps for water, sewage and fuels and core functions at water and sewage treatment plants. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we could not get the thermal power plants operating — even when major power lines were restored — until we could move water to the electric generation plants.

Transportation lighting and signage is also critical because until we can get major intersection signal lights powered after a storm, gridlock delay first responders or reconstruction and service crews. Railroad, seaport and airport lighting and communications have the same requirements. While data centers have layered back-ups, many went down during Katrina and Sandy because diesel fuel suppliers could not get to fill generator tanks.

Buildings also have critical needs aside from WIFI and phone, security including: operating rooms in hospitals, data centers within buildings, sump pumps to prevent flooding, at least one elevator shaft — and in southern and northern climates, the HVAC systems to ensure minimally-acceptable comfort is essential. 

In communities, we need to power select strip malls that are geographically dispersed that have ATM machines, refrigeration for food, health care (eye, health, dental). This would allows us to direct only the most critical victims to hospitals and the rest away from hospitals, gasoline pump islands and schools as convergence points from displaced people of for first responders. For schools, we only need to power the office, computer lab, kitchen and the gymnasium (about a third of the overall energy) to make the facility usable.

Adopting maximum energy efficiency to significantly reduce energy loads, and then using dedicated hybrid renewable energy systems with battery storage to power the assorted infrastructure loads achieves several benefits — both are fast and cost effective to do, have no or low fuel supply-chain needs, and they can be financed through traditional leasing and power purchase agreement approaches used throughout the U.S. market. 

Distributed systems in energy are similar to distributed communications (the cellular network) and databases (the internet), where you can have dispersed and self-healing grids. Major U.S. utilities are also driving microgrid such as ComEd for Chicago and OATI in Bloomington, Minnesota 

The idea to create regional microgrids, financed in part by the private sector, with financial support from federal infrastructure funding to be passed by Congress, make the most sense for Puerto Rico. Rather than re-establishing the old improved version, let’s allow the local governments and the private sector develop a far more resilient, multi-technology network that mimics our resilient networks. Using proven financial models we use today for distributed energy, from natural gas combined heat and power, to solar installations and wind farms, more aggressively in blended solutions.

But more importantly, it’s less about technologies but about smart integration, seamless interaction, to maximize resiliency and provide lower cost electricity compared to the 24 to 48 cents per kWh Puerto Ricans paid before Hurricane Irma — more than twice mainland U.S. costs. They can do better, using U.S.-made proven technologies in the 21st-Century motif. Let’s not rebuild the same grid with a prettier face, but a lower cost, privately financed with U.S. government support. Then we can market it to the rest of the developing world, particularly the 1.6 billion people without access to electricity and the other 1.2 billion that have limited access to electricity. 

Scott Sklar is vice chairman of the U.S. Department of Commerce Advisory Committee on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, U.S. Department of Commerce. Sklar is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University and president of The Stella Group, Ltd.