One Year After Maria, Puerto Rico’s Energy Future Still in Limbo

This weekend, as the anniversary of Hurricane Maria approached, over 30,000 Puerto Ricans were once again left temporarily in the dark by an electrical fault .

The outage reminded residents of the crippling outages that lasted for months — outages that are one storm away. Thursday marks one-year since Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. Since then, Puerto Ricans have coped with months of power outages, suffered through federal inaction and mourned thousands of deaths.

Much of the recovery is only beginning.

In the second year of the crisis, questions linger about the structure of the electricity system and frustrations persist about local versus federal control over decisions. While policymakers try to find answers, private interests have moved on their own schedule — covering the island in solar and storage systems.

“The poles that were bad were fixed, and the cables were repaired. But the system needs to be transformed to be more resilient,” said Tomás Torres Placa, executive director at Puerto Rico’s Institute of Competitiveness and Economic Sustainability. “That’s where we’re at.”

A question of resilience

No one disagrees that the grid system needs to be more resilient. But there's little agreement on what resilience means — or who gets to define it.

Julia Hamm, CEO at the Smart Power Electric Alliance (SEPA), said “the vision at the highest level” for the energy system crystallized early in 2018.

“What is still in development, I think, are the specifics of what the system will look like in order to deliver on that vision,” Hamm said.

Those specifics vary based on who you ask.

In a draft Integrated Resource Plan ( IRP ) prepared by Siemens and submitted to the island’s energy bureau in August, the utility suggested only 18 percent renewables, including distributed generation, was achievable by 2035. Its recommended portfolio included several new combined cycle gas units in addition to 1,065 megawatts of renewable energy.

Meanwhile, Torres Placa’s group is working on a report with the Rocky Mountain Institute that calls for a 50 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2035, and a system relying entirely on renewables by 2050.

and biodiesel), water (hydropower), wind and solar. Except for hydropower, they are all derived from the sun.

SEPA's Hamm, who also serves on the utility’s Transformation Advisory Council, has advocated for a system that uses distributed clean energy. And Republican members of Congress have repeatedly suggested Puerto Rico might be better served by investing in natural gas infrastructure.

The National Institute of Island Energy and Sustainability (INESI), a group of University of Puerto Rico professors that advocates for an interdisciplinary approach to energy issues, has pushed for community-based generation. However, they believe that local collaboration is being neglected by mainland stakeholders. Cecilio Ortiz García, who helps lead INESI, said the island’s academics have found it difficult to gain access to transformation discussions, even informally.

“The physical and technical parts of the system were brought down, but the particular characteristics of our energy governance haven’t changed much. The hurricane didn’t bring those down,” said Ortiz García. “Figuring out where and when to insert yourself, it’s a full-time job. Academia is trying to do its best.”

The differing, and at times conflicting views, have bogged down planning through the transformation. Some see that changing.

"Cooperation has improved," said Hamm. "I don't know that tensions can every be fully eliminated, but they certainly seem to have lessened."

Others are less convinced.

"It's out of our hands," said Marla Pérez Lugo, an environmental sociologist at UPR-Mayagüez and another leader of INESI.

Approaching implementation

The finalized Integrated Resource Plan is expected in just over a week, on September 28. Hamm said the release of that document, and the energy bureau's response, should bring clarity on next steps for structuring the system.

At the same time, Puerto Rico legislators are working on drafting energy regulations and policies to guide the privatization of the utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Through weekly working group meetings as well as federal collaboration, Senator Eduardo Bhatia said in July that lawmakers will create “clear, specific, legislative mandates” that clarify a schedule for integrating renewables.

Those decisions should create guideposts after a year of tumult. PREPA has churned through several CEOs and board members in recent months. The governor has also remade the utility’s regulator: Once the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, it's now the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau.

So far, much of the tangible progress in Puerto Rico has been led by communities, municipalities, and private companies. Hamm said Puerto Rico’s Public Private Partnership authority, working with PREPA, has helped coordinate those developments. Along with the IRP and the regulation, she said 2019 should be “much more of an implementation year” than 2018.

as an energy source. Today, coal, petroleum and natural gas account for 83 percent of the nation’s energy

The future grid ‘one da​y at a time’

As public policy developed in fits and starts in Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., private developers and installers have seen brisk business.

Sunrun arrived on the island after the storm to install solar-plus-storage systems on several fire stations. Then the company began offering residential systems through partnerships with local solar companies Windmar, New Energy and Maximo Solar Industries. That strategy, Sunrun said, helps grow the local industry rather than squeeze it. Other solar and storage players such as Tesla, sonnen, and Sunnova have also concentrated on the island.

“We have experienced exactly the type of demand we were anticipating in Puerto Rico,” said Chris Rauscher, Sunrun’s director of public policy.

That demand, with residents investing in storage systems and in some cases defecting from the grid altogether, has helped installers chart the future of the grid separate from the planning process.

Rauscher said Sunrun and its peers have been “building [the] future grid one day at a time, one home a time, one roof at a time — while the long-term planning is going on.”

“The beauty of what we’re doing is we’re complementary to new gas infrastructure, we’re complementary to a 100 percent renewable vision, we’re complementary to moderate incremental change on the grid,” Rauscher added. “Whatever way it heads, we’re already building out that fleet one family at a time.”

“Really the key is going to be to tie all that together in a way that it ensures it benefits all Puerto Ricans, and not just the individuals deploying those systems,” she said. “A lot of the philanthropic money and customers who are able to afford to deploy technologies themselves, a lot of that has been where the focus has been the first 12 months. In the next 12 months, I think we’ll move into a new phase.”

She sees that as coordinated, sponsored help organized through the government and the public private partnerships authority.

According to forthcoming analysis from Marcel Castro Sitiriche, a professor of electrical engineering at University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, targeted deployment of solar-plus-storage systems could significantly reduce hours without power for customers.

Using publicly available data on the island's power restoration, Castro Sitiriche found that if the last 200,000 households connected to Puerto Rico’s grid had a 2-kilowatt PV system with 10-kilowatt hours of energy storage, Puerto Rico's blackout would have lasted 156 days rather than 329. Customer hours without electricity would have declined by a third.

According to the WWF, the whole world could get all the power it needs from renewable resources by 2050, ending our reliance on fossil fuels and other depleting resources – but only if the right political, financial and societal decisions are made, and quickly.

If those systems were deployed on the last 500,000 customers, the blackout would have lasted 71 days. Castro Sitiriche hopes the results will influence public policy.

“We do need to harden the system, but we need to have decentralized alternatives,” he said. “If not, we’re going to have the communities that are most remote that are going to be served last. There are communities we need to serve first with solar systems, so there’s some sense of social justice.”