After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the island of Puerto Rico went dark. Much of the island remained without power for months, with the last areas re-connected to the grid nearly a year after the storm. More than $3.2 billion was spent getting on restorations, but the system is still insufficiently improved. When a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck followed by numerous aftershocks, much of the island lost power again. This time, however, in a few areas surrounded by darkness, the lights were still on.
Private donations of technology and other resources have led to the establishment of “microgrids” in Puerto Rico. These are localized electrical grids that harvest energy through solar panels or other renewable energy sources, and store excess energy in batteries to allow for continuous power.
These microgrids are serving critical infrastructure in Puerto Rico ranging from a children’s hospital to water treatment facilities, to community centers and fire stations. After the earthquake, microgrid-powered systems were put to the test, and those within the footprint of their respective microgrid were able to avoid disruption to power.
However, these microgrids are not the only solution that the residents of Puerto Rico are implementing. The number of individual rooftop solar systems installed on the island nearly doubled in the year after Hurricane Maria, with about 10,000 new systems installed. Others have purchased gas generators, which can be helpful in the short term, but rely on access to fuel and pose their own hazards.
Much of the rest of the island remains reliant on a fragile electrical grid. There is reason to be hopeful as legislation has been passed to build a distributed electrical system based on renewable energy.
The cost of disruptions to any power grid is measured in lives as well as dollars. The thousands of deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria are likely due in part to the loss of the cascading impact of power has, including exacerbating health conditions and lack of access to care. In general, costs to large companies can be in the millions of dollars per hour of disruption, and the total cost to the US economy annually is as much as $150 billion from power outages. The pre-emptive shut-off of the power grid to prevent wildfires in California last fall may have cost the economy more than $2 billion.
While billions are spent rebuilding and maintaining grids centered on technology that is more than half a century out of date, there are innovations in modular grids that are less prone to widespread power outages, smart routing of electricity around these disruptions, and more robust physical upgrades that can make our energy systems more resilient to disasters. More costly strategies, such as burying power lines, may also end up being less costly in the long run if additional outages are prevented.
To achieve resilience, these strategies need to take the critical infrastructure where they are deployed into consideration, along with any social vulnerabilities. Utilities can then bring these strategies to scale and provide power to the masses. Individual renewable energy projects, such as private solar and battery storage, are helpful as demonstrations and beneficial for the still relatively small number of people benefitting from them.
Integrating these approaches into the design and upgrading of large-scale power generation and distribution systems are critical to bringing these advantages to broader society. This is no simple task. There are many actors and stakeholders including utilities, legislators, regulators, contractors, and developers representing a broad range of interests that ultimately must be aligned to achieve the long-term interests of a society that is increasingly reliant on a resilient energy system.
While Puerto Rico offers a glimpse of what is possible, it is also a cautionary tale. Microgrids and better electrical infrastructure are already available to those who can afford it, or to those lucky enough to benefit from nearby renewable power. In order to truly realize the promise of technical innovations, they need to be integrated into smart electrical grids that are resilient to the growing number of extreme events that we are facing. Only when the grid can continue to provide these added capabilities will there be sufficient societal resilience to meet the challenges that emerge.
Jeff Schlegelmilch is deputy director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the author of the forthcoming book “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschlegel.
Shay Bahramirad, Ph.D., in electrical engineering, is the vice president of Engineering and Smart Grid for ComEd, the electric utility serving more than 4 million customers in Chicago and Northern Illinois. Follow her on Twitter: @Sh_Bahramirad.