Puerto Rico's Power Grid Needs a Renewable Upgrade

Puerto Rico's Power Grid Needs a Renewable Upgrade

Five years ago, the world was horrified by long-term electricity blackouts caused by Hurricane Maria, which ultimately highlighted the need to "climatize” Puerto Rico’s energy system. Yet large-scale upgrades were never made -- and now, history has repeated itself. As of today, close to three weeks after Hurricane Fiona made landfall, over a 100,000 of the island’s residents are still without power. Even outside of hurricane season, blackouts are far from uncommon due to outdated technology and a long history of mismanagement. Puerto Rico has one interconnected, island-wide grid -- "if one part of the grid goes down, everything else shuts down because of the way [they] built the system to protect itself,” energy expert Sergio Marxuach explained to Popular Science.

Not only is the electricity transmission failing residents -- electricity generation is, too. Currently, 97% of Puerto Rico’s electricity currently comes from fossil fuels. The Puerto Rico Public Policy Act passed in 2019 commits the island to provide 100% renewable energy-powered electricity by 2050, yet failure to pass policy has delayed the transition.

PBS: Hurricane exposes fragility of Puerto Rico’s energy grid despite large-scale investments, September 22, 2022.

CBS: Why does Puerto Rico’s energy grid keep failing?, September 20, 2022.

VICE: Why It’s So Hard To Get The Power Back On In Puerto Rico (HBO), December 20, 2017.

Why This Matters

In 2020 US Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA) allotted $9.6 billion to fund grid transformation, yet inadequate management by the Canadian-American company LUMA Energy has continued to prevent widespread reform. Experts say decentralizing the island’s energy grid and transitioning to a diverse renewable energy portfolio is the key to resilience.

In a visit to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Fiona, however, President Biden acknowledged previous failings and pledged to renew focus on the grid. The administration promised to allocate $60 million for resiliency measures including flood walls, and announced a "Puerto Rican grid modernization team” led by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

ABC: Biden visits Puerto Rico, announces more than $60M in aid, October 3, 2022.

CBS: Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid, February 22, 2022.

The Path Forward is Clean

According to a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, implementing behind-the-meter solar PV-plus-energy-storage-systems (PVESS) can help to significantly increase power security. Rather than relying solely on the grid, PVESS allows customers to generate their own electricity during outages using "rooftop solar” systems installed on residences. Within Puerto Rico, the Community Energy Resilience Initiative is beginning to implement PVESS microgrids in the most vulnerable areas.

Other hurricane-prone areas have already effectively used solar backup to increase resilience. When Hurricane Ian hit Florida and left 2.6 million without power, a 700,000 panel solar array in Babcock Ranch -- "America’s first solar-powered town” located just outside of Fort Myers -- kept electricity running for the town’s residents.

EdisonAwards: A Profile of Babcock Ranch in SW Florida, April 28, 2021.

Clean energy doesn’t build itself. To fully realize the potential of renewables, experts say that we must first electrify everything -- but in order to electrify everything, we also need to train a whole lot more electricians. Supporting job growth in the renewable energy sector will require the passage of legislation on clean energy tax credits to incentivize development and subsidize production. The Inflation Reduction Act passed in August provides the perfect opportunity to do so -- currently, the US Treasury Department is exploring how to implement $270 billion in federal tax breaks for clean manufacturing and energy efficiency as part of the nation’s plan to achieve net zero by 2050.

WW0: Creating Jobs While Decarbonizing the US Economy, June 27, 2022.

60 Minutes: How secure is America’s electric grid?, February 27, 2022.

Wall Street Journal: More Money Is Flowing Into Green Energy Than Ever Before. Here’s Why., January 6, 2021.

Quartz: Puerto Rico’s solar energy insurrection, January 25, 2019.

Bloomberg: The Huge, Weird Batteries of the Future, August 4, 2022.