Puerto Rico needs a weatherized mini-grid network to survive the next Maria

Puerto Rico needs a weatherized mini-grid network to survive the next Maria
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When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the entire population was impacted. We want to help ensure that this type of humanitarian disaster does not happen again due to extreme weather events. At the Puerto Rico Energy Commission’s request, AES has put forward a different vision for the Puerto Rican grid — one that does not simply rebuild the status quo network nor one that discards its value in favor of small dispersed microgrids.

In comments we submitted to the Puerto Rico Energy Commission in November, we proposed a network of connected “mini-grids,” reinforced by weatherized key transmission and distribution lines and powered by an unprecedented mix of new utility-scale solar and battery-based energy storage.

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AES has been the lowest-cost electricity provider on the island for the past 15 years, and has experience operating in 16 countries, including on other islands such as the Dominican Republic, where our assets also have been subject to extreme weather events. This vision would reliably deliver higher-quality power throughout the island, make it more resilient to storms, speed any future recoveries, and also significantly cut reliance on, and emissions from, expensive imported oil and diesel.

 

If fully realized, these mini-grids would be largely supported by up to 10,000 MW of large-scale solar PV capacity and 2,500 MW of 10-hour duration battery-based energy storage — as much storage capacity as is currently in operation worldwide, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance — and built to similar robust standards as AES’ solar and battery storage sites around the world.

Why take this approach instead of outfitting every home with solar and batteries, as many have suggested? Because if an island-wide grid in some form isn’t in place, communities can only rely on the resources they can afford. While some can add solar, others may have to rely on outdated and costly oil- and diesel-fueled generation powered by imported fuel. A smarter, faster and more cost-effective use of resources is to install larger-scale solar and battery storage (front-of-the-meter) installations across the island’s grid where it can both prevent outages and provide additional services to the grid.

Coming in around $0.11 per kWh, large-scale solar combined with battery-based energy storage is a very cost-effective solution for meeting the resiliency needs in Puerto Rico. The solar plus battery solution could be as much as 40 percent cheaper than current wholesale energy costs and would require less investment in other infrastructure. Adding these new resources would carry less capital investment than the expected cost of the next 10 years of fuel required to operate the existing high-cost generation resources on the island — a key concern as the government works to rebuild. This concept would also greatly increase the reliability and resilience of Puerto Rico’s grid, setting it up to better weather and rebound from future storms, and reduce its overall emissions.

This combination of technologies would offer Puerto Rico three crucial benefits. It would connect select existing low-cost generation to critical load centers near San Juan on the north side of the country. It would deliver clean energy across more of the day and night. Lastly, neighboring mini-grids would be connected, enabling Puerto Rico’s grid operator to pool resources and restore power faster in a crisis.

How do we know this would be a better solution for Puerto Rico’s power needs? Because we’ve been on the ground working as a partner to Puerto Rico for 15 years. We’ve developed, deployed and proven solutions for the electric grid in 16 countries, including pioneering the use of battery-based energy storage on the grid a decade ago.

We are on the ground in Puerto Rico, and stand ready to help create a more affordable and resilient electric grid for all Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rico is a home to AES, and our hope with this vision is to ensure its people never go through the kind of hardship Maria has inflicted again.

Chris Shelton is vice president and chief technology officer of The AES Corporation. Shelton has over 20 years of technology related development and systems architecture experience and has been a leader in the origination and expansion of new business efforts at AES, including the development of AES’ energy storage business and recently established distributed solar business.