Monday, October 30, 2017

Tesla Just Brought Solar to a Hospital in Puerto Rico.  The Rest of the Island Won't Be As Easy.

Tesla solar panels will provide power to a children’s hospital, Hospital del Niño, in Puerto Rico. (Credit: Tesla) Click to Enlarge.
There’s no doubt that the technology to reliably power most of Puerto Rico with distributed renewables exists.

But refashioning Puerto Rico’s grid is not a question of technology.  Rather, the dire state of the territory’s finances poses a significant obstacle to new investment in its energy infrastructure.  Ultimately, building a greener, more resilient, independent grid rests on whether there is enough money and political will to see the vision through.

Puerto Rico’s energy woes predate Maria and go beyond the grid
Though this brutal aftermath of the storm has brought Puerto Rico’s power sector’s weaknesses into sharp relief, it was creaking long before Hurricane Maria struck and even before the island’s financial downturn.

As Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell explained, as tax breaks faded, businesses left the island, and so did workers and utility customers, eating into the revenue of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the unregulated utility monopoly.

The utility spiraled in debt and barely kept up with maintaining the power grid, let alone modernizing Puerto Rico’s energy system, as outlined in a 2016 assessment commissioned by the Puerto Rico Energy Commission.

“PREPA’s fundamental infrastructure is in jeopardy due to a lack of funding and significant workforce reductions,” according to the report.  “PREPA’s generation, transmission, and distribution systems are falling apart and reliability is suffering.”

Judith Enck, who until January ran EPA’s Region II, which includes Puerto Rico, said the utility also failed to make upgrades when times were good, content with its monopoly status.

“This predated the financial collapse in Puerto Rico.  The fundamental problem is PREPA,” Enck said.  “I met regularly with the utility in Puerto Rico and encouraged them to invest in energy efficiency and renewables, but there was tremendous resistance.”

Despite ample wind and sun, some of the highest electricity prices in the country, and the steep cost decline in renewable energy technologies, Puerto Rico has fallen far behind other US regions in renewable energy investment, forming barely 2 percent of its generation mix.
Yet to many people outside the island, the destruction to such a beleaguered power system appears to be an opportunity to rebuild better and cleaner.  “The only silver lining, if there is one, is that they have an opportunity to completely change how they generate and distribute electricity on the island,” said Enck.
And shifting away from big, centralized power plants and large power grids toward smaller distributed systems does confer some advantages when it comes to standing up to storms and rebuilding after.
Revamping the grid will cost Puerto Rico dearly.  And no one seems to have a plan to pay for it.
Battery-backed microgrids are predicted to attract $22.3 billion in investment over the next 10 years, spurred in part by the outages after recent storms.

But switching to a distributed grid dominated by renewables and energy storage systems won’t make Puerto Rico invincible to storms, and they also introduce their own problems.

The biggest issue is cost.

“We can build power systems that are almost 100 percent reliable but they are not going to be cost-effective,” said Schneider.
The Trump administration has also shown a questionable commitment to recovery in Puerto Rico, with the president threatening on October 12 to withdraw FEMA and military responders.  But Trump also broached forgiving Puerto Rico’s debt.

That means the default solution — rebuilding the island’s electrical grid the way it was — may end up becoming the likeliest scenario.

For now, the US Army Corps of Engineers is concentrating its power restoration work across four fronts: providing emergency power, getting existing power plants up to speed, rebuilding power transmission lines, and repairing distribution systems.

Read more at Tesla Just Brought Solar to a Hospital in Puerto Rico.  The Rest of the Island Won't Be As Easy.

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