Puerto Rico’s hurricane déjà vu: How did we get here?
Puerto Rico’s electric grid has taken another massive hit — this time from Hurricane Fiona, evoking memories of Hurricane Maria from five years ago today. It’s déjà vu all over again, as the great Yogi Berra used to say.
On Sunday, the Category 1 hurricane hit Puerto Rico with 85 mph winds. Up to 30 inches of rain were forecast for Puerto Rico’s southern region. As Fiona made landfall, poweroutage.us reported an island-wide power blackout, leaving nearly 1.5 million customers without electricity. As of Monday, over 1.3 million were still without power. As of Tuesday, Fiona strengthened to a Category 3 storm as it moves across the Caribbean, and the outer edges of the storm continue to dump rain on Puerto Rico.
It’s been five years since Category 4 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s power grid. In the 11 months following that storm, Puerto Rico spent $3.2 billion in funds received from the federal government, erecting 52,000 new electrical poles and stringing 6,000 miles of wire to restore power to the island. In 2020, an additional $13 billion in federal aid was provided to help the island further rebuild its grid. However, these federal projects are taking too long to materialize. Despite the billions of dollars in federal funding that have been allocated, only $40 million has been disbursed, so far.
Despite massive funding for rebuilding efforts, Puerto Rico’s grid has remained stubbornly fragile. The truth is that the island’s grid has long suffered from outages that experts blame on poor management and under-investment. LUMA Energy, a private company that took over Puerto Rico’s grid management in June 2021, was recently criticized by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D), arguing it was not operating the grid reliably.
There’s also disagreement raging over how best to restore the grid. Renewable energy and consumer advocates want funds to be spent on solar panels for the roofs of every home on the island, with the goal of creating a decentralized source of power generation. This could minimize the widespread blackouts that have occurred when storms damage the miles of power lines that currently extend across rugged terrain from natural gas, coal and oil-fired power plants that provide most of the island’s electricity.
Others argue that a complete replacement of the grid is needed. They agree that more renewable energy is necessary, but advocate for an all-of-the-above approach for the immediate future, using liquified natural gas as a bridge to generate needed electricity. This would allow for Puerto Rico’s grid to be stabilized while more renewables are added.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Puerto Rico’s current generation mix is 44 percent natural gas, 37 percent oil and diesel fuel, 17 percent coal and roughly 3 percent renewable energy.
However, the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act (PREPA) mandates that the commonwealth obtain 40 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025, 60 percent by 2040,and 100 percent by 2050. The law also phases out coal-fired generation by 2028.
A major problem for Puerto Rico is that the island is often exposed to severe weather, including hurricanes that bring high winds and floods — conditions that can be devastating for an electric grid. To remain reliable, Puerto Rico’s grid must now be designed for resiliency. The goal should be a newfound ability to adapt to changing conditions, withstand potentially disruptive events and make a rapid recovery in the event of another weather disaster. To date, the island’s electric grid has not been designed to withstand severe weather or to rapidly recover from damage.
Any municipality’s electric grid requires an enormous and complex network of power generation, transmission lines, distribution systems and customer delivery. Building and maintaining a reliable and resilient electric grid requires comprehensive planning and execution. Even in the best of times, grid operations can be challenging. And so, maintaining a reliable, resilient electric system involves careful, long-range planning.
For years, Puerto Rico’s approach to maintaining its electric grid has been reactive, haphazard and disorganized — responding to problems only after they occur. This has led to a substandard and unreliable electric system. And the disagreements over how best to restore the island’s grid have led to gridlock that has delayed needed improvements.
What’s needed is a comprehensive, long-range planning effort to remake Puerto Rico’s power grid. This will require time and the participation of all interested parties. The commonwealth needs to start the planning process now to build a reliable and resilient grid, not only to keep the lights on for customers but also to facilitate its mandated renewable energy goals.
Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.