Preparing for hurricane season in Puerto Rico with long-term solutions

With hurricane season upon us again, I am reminded of the lessons learned after the devastation we went through in 2017, when thousands of people in Puerto Rico went without electricity for nearly a year after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island. Many communities had limited access to clean water, food and health services.

As much as we’ve been able to rebuild, a lot of work remains to be done to prepare for the future. As temperatures rise, we see stronger, more frequent and more deadly hurricanes. We must ensure their outcome affects people as minimally as possible. This will require a better understanding of what communities need to rebuild and adapt, what technology can be deployed to address specific challenges — such as a modern, more resilient grid and infrastructure —and the tools that can be used to finance them.

Many local officials and communities in Puerto Rico are making remarkable progress to make this transformation possible. Following their lead is essential to making any solution to the island’s energy crisis successful in the long- term. Communities, energy reform, technology and finance – all have a role to play in protecting the island from the next super storm, while improving the quality of life for all its residents and strengthening its economy long into the future.

The role of microgrids in the community

EDF is developing an innovative project to demonstrate the feasibility of low-carbon microgrids to aid in rebuilding and adapting Puerto Rico’s electric grid. Think of them as mini-energy service stations that fuel up on solar power and are supported by battery storage and intelligent software. They are connected to the larger grid — ensuring the delivery of affordable, clean and reliable energy every day — and can also separate from it to keep the lights on in hospitals, community centers and schools during emergencies.

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Communities throughout Puerto Rico, especially those located in remote areas where it is harder to repair and maintain energy equipment, can help in this process. In addition to communicating their particular needs and identifying challenges, such as restoring communications infrastructure, improving access roads, and rebuilding bridges, they must notify the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island’s utility, when they experience outages or see electric lines down.

Reforming the energy system

Of course PREPA should work to restore services quickly if a storm affects the system. However, the type of transformation I’m talking about — one in which the grid is upgraded beyond pre-Maria conditions — will require energy reform to be implemented effectively with resilience at its core. For example, renewable energy, such as wind and solar, should be rewarded for their contribution to Puerto Rico’s system-wide resilience. Access to energy data can incentivize renewables and other distribute energy resources in areas where customers and the grid can benefit the most. To build a network where energy flows from one place to another — not just within a community itself, but with the main grid – we need to leverage best practices for interconnection. These features must be in place for this transformation to be successful and grant communities the access to electricity they deserve.

A key planning element, and probably the most important one, is the Integrated Resource Plan recently filed by PREPA at the Energy Bureau earlier this month. The IRP, a plan reviewed every three years, is a tool to effectively plan for the next 20 years and determine the energy resources needed to meet future demands. As such, it should responsibly lead to a modern, more resilient grid amid climate-relate hazards, as well as advance the new energy policy requirements of Puerto Rico’s recent commitment to a 100% renewable energy portfolio by 2050.

Innovative investment is critical

Financing solutions to modernize Puerto Rico’s electric grid for the long run are a challenge. Budget estimates for rebuilding the grid stand at $26 billion. To attract the kind of sound and innovative financing this effort requires, Puerto Rico will need new partners — both public and private — that have experience in the world of clean energy investment.

A future for Puerto Rico means leveraging public grants and philanthropic money with additional sources of capital. Investors are increasingly willing to participate in the shared responsibility to tackle the climate crisis, and recognize that this represents both risks and opportunities. Building a resilient system for Puerto Rico can be one of these investment opportunities as the renewable energy market continues to grow.

A brighter future for Puerto Rico and other areas vulnerable to climate change

As a new paradigm in the electric service develops, with the deployment of renewable energy systems and hubs across the island in critical service buildings and communities, it is time to plan for a future beyond recovery for Puerto Rico. While a monumental upgrade of the island’s electric grid is in order, the opportunity lies in transforming the system so that Puerto Rico cannot only succeed, but also thrive and be a model of innovation and resilience for other areas vulnerable to climate change.

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