Electric industry seeks to rebuild and transform Puerto Rico’s power system

Published on December 26, 2017 by Terri Williams

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Puerto Rico now holds the record for the longest power outage in the history of the United States and 30 percent of residents are still without power.

But despite the challenges of rebuilding the island’s power system, there is optimism that electric industry leaders will craft innovative solutions that result in a more resilient grid that can withstand future storms.

After Hurricane Irma landed on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, more than a million residents lost power when the electric infrastructure suffered significant damage. Just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria rocked Puerto Rico with 25 inches of rain and winds exceeding 150 miles per hour, further exacerbating the power problem.

There are now multiple challenges that must be overcome, according to Julia Hamm, CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), and a founding member of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) Transformation Advisory Council.

“The most immediate is the conundrum between simply getting the power back on ASAP for the people on the island who are suffering while also trying to determine how to rebuild the system in a new way,” Hamm recently told Daily Energy Insider. But she said the short-term goals and long-term actions don’t necessarily align.

PREPA formed its Transformation Advisory Council to provide advice on developing a long-term vision and plan to build a new model of power generation and delivery in Puerto Rico. The council, with 11 founding members, will be chaired by David K. Owens, former executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute.

While federal money will be important to help the island rebuild, Hamm said support from the private sector is also critical. And Puerto Rico’s severe financial crisis and more than $70 billion in debt make attracting private capital to help the island rebuild more difficult.

Hamm, who recently visited Puerto Rico to examine its power needs, noted the long length of time it will take to rebuild the electric system and return power to remote communities.

“Another challenge is that many different people have visions and plans for the power system and it’s going to be important in the next few months for everyone to get together to work toward a shared goal,” Hamm said.

Hamm is also on the Steering Committee for the Puerto Rico Energy Resilience Working Group convened by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which prepared a report earlier this month on rebuilding and transforming the island’s power system.

The report recommended modernizing Puerto Rico’s electric grid by leveraging technologies to better contain outages, reducing recovery times, lowering operation costs, and utilizing more sustainable energy resources that will reduce reliance on imported fuel.

Puerto Rico’s electric grid needs to be rebuilt as a smart grid that is designed to facilitate customer distributed resources, Hamm said, adding that the new system should incorporate flexibility that allows customers to make their own choices regarding their energy consumption.

That sentiment aligned with recommendations made by the working group’s report, which called for the increased use of renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind, and incorporating new distributed energy resource technologies such as energy storage and microgrids.

Additionally, only 15 percent of Puerto Rico’s transmission lines are designed to withstand a Category 4 storm, so they need to be upgraded, and in some instances, relocated to new transmission paths. The transmission system also should be able to integrate microgrids.

“Certainly, in hearing much of the conversation, there seems to be support around the idea of a series of smaller regional grids that are able to act in concert with one another,” she said. “They are connected but also able to operate in isolation, which would help with reliability and resiliency.”

Hamm pointed out other ways the power system could be strengthened. “For example, moving the generator closer to the load results in less reliance on transmission lines, and with Puerto Rico being mountainous, they are difficult to build and retain.”

“In some of the remote communities, it may make sense for microgrids to operate independently and be self-sustaining – particularly helpful for hospitals, and police and fire stations, Hamm explained.
But microgrids also provide a commercial advantage.

“If something happens and the entire grid or a portion of grid goes down, you’re still able to provide power, whereas right now, all of the solar systems on the island don’t have battery backups,” Hamm said.

The key will be to strengthen the grid to increase its ability to withstand future catastrophic storms. “It is about making sure that the system is designed to meet standards targeted at Category 4 or even Category 5 storms,” Hamm noted.