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Puerto Rico needs a new energy grid (not just repairs to the old one)

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Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico. As has been widely reported, the U.S. territory’s essential infrastructure is down. A week after María, 60 percent of our homes lacked running water, and 100 percent lacked electricity.

For us fans of “The Walking Dead,” our daily routine is very familiar. Every day, we have a choice: patiently wait in five-hour lines to fill our gas tanks, “hunt” for food and supplies at the few stores that are able to open or attempt to retrieve cash from ATMs or banks. Most of us have included in our routine the daily search of “sweet spots” near highways, where telecommunications are available. There are reports of looting, and even robberies of fuel and diesel tanks.

{mosads}Sometimes you feel like one of the characters of the popular AMC show. Maybe with fewer zombies.


While waiting in a five-hour line to get some gas, I have been reflecting about the long-term recovery package for Puerto Rico that the Trump administration could send to Congress in the next few weeks. In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Reps. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and in the Senate, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have called for a relief and an infrastructure package for Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority certified that 80 percent of the island’s transmission and distribution lines are down. Most of the system is literally in the ground. The power authority’s executive director has stated that it could take up to six months to get the power back on.

It seems obvious that any federal relief package will have to include funds for energy infrastructure. The government of Puerto Rico, and the already bankrupt power authority, lack the resources needed to repair the transmission and distribution lines.

But perhaps the time has come not just to repair the island’s “old electric grid”, as President Trump described it on a recent tweet. The power authority’s grid was already in shambles before the catastrophic hurricane hit the island. For years, consumers and businesses have suffered from high energy costs, unreliability and interruptions (such as a September, 2016 blackout that lasted for several days).

Puerto Rico’s short term recovery, and long term prospects of economic development, depend on building a new energy grid. Reliability, resilience and the capacity to integrate renewables are key.

The island’s energy policy (Act No. 57-2014), and Title V of the PROMESA act, emphasize the objective of reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels. Reducing reliance on oil will help lower energy costs, and allow for compliance with environmental standards. Puerto Ricans, as well as all U.S. citizens, deserve cheaper and cleaner energy.

A stronger and “smarter” grid is required in order to integrate more renewable energy into the system. A 2014 report prepared by Siemens concluded that the power authority’s “old electric grid” would only be able to integrate up to 580 MW of renewable power. Unacceptable.

The renewable portfolio standard of Puerto Rico requires 12 percent of renewables on the island’s energy mix. Sadly, renewables stand for only 2 percent.

A long-term recovery package for Puerto Rico will potentially help decentralize the power authority’s grid. The utility currently struggles to operate a centralized grid, where power generation is based in the southern part of Puerto Rico, while most of the energy consumption concentrates in the North.

A decentralized energy model could integrate microgrids, as authorized by Act No. 133-2016. Microgrids for key government, security and health installations (such as hospitals), would also help recovery efforts after future storms and hurricanes.

Distributed generation has to be embraced in a future decentralized energy model for Puerto Rico: solar panels (and storage) for homes and businesses, and community shared solar. Wheeling, which will allow industries to purchase energy from private generators, has to be included in the mix. Creative public-private partnerships, as well as new power purchase agreements with private generators, must be pursued. For years, advocates of power authority’s centralized model have frowned upon these options. Their time is up. 

Appropriating taxpayer money just to repair an old 20th Century grid is a waste of resources. Ken Buell, director of Emergency Response and Recovery with the U.S. Department of Energy, stated that  “we really should think in terms of rebuilding at this point”, not just repairing the old grid. Judith Enck, former EPA administrator, concluded that “it’s absolutely imperative that FEMA not fund rebuilding an inadequate system”.

Trump campaigned on a promise to rebuild America’s infrastructure. Mr. President, members of Congress: the time has come to build a new and strong energy grid for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. 

Ramón Luis Nieves is managing member of RL Legal & Consulting Services, LLC, is a former senator for the District of San Juan, and chairman of the Energy, Banking, Insurance and Telecommunications committees of the Senate of Puerto Rico.  

Tags Chuck Schumer Electric power electrical grid Hurricane Maria Luis Gutierrez Marco Rubio Paul Ryan Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Ramón Luis Nieves Renewable energy

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