Thursday, May 31, 2018

After the Storm, Puerto Rico Misses a Chance to Rebuild with Renewables

Eight months after Hurricane Maria damaged 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity grid, energy expert Lionel Orama-Exclusa talks to Yale Environment 360 about how the island is missing an opportunity to transform its energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources.

Damage from Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico in October 2017. The storm compromised about 80 percent of the island's electrical grid. (Credit: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico last September, the storm’s 155 mile-per-hour winds tore apart the island’s infrastructure, killing thousands of people and leaving the entire island without electricity, in some cases for months.  In the wake of the storm, renewable energy proponents and the media observed that the island’s devastation provided a unique opportunity to rebuild Puerto Rico as a resilient community powered largely by renewable energy.

One of the most vocal advocates for transforming the country’s post-Maria energy system has been Lionel Orama-Exclusa, an engineer and sustainable energy expert at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayag├╝ez.  But to the chagrin of Orama-Exclusa and others, in the eight months since the storm, the island has made almost no headway in laying the foundation for a renewable energy economy.  Although government officials have given lip service to microgrids and renewables, “there’s no building back better anywhere you look,” says Orama-Exclusa.  He lamented that in late May the director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was touting continued carbon generation using coal and “totally dropping the possibility of renewables because he said renewables are so expensive.” 

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Orama-Exclusa, also a leader of the University of Puerto Rico’s National Institute for Energy and Island Sustainability, talks about Puerto Rico’s enormous potential to develop solar and wind power, the government’s continued preference for fossil fuels, and whether the island and its energy infrastructure are ready for a new hurricane season, which officially starts June 1.

Yale Environment 360:  What state is Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure in today, eight months after Hurricane Maria?
Lionel Orama-Exclusa:  According to PREPA, it’s close to 99 percent recovered.  But we are not sure of that.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico delivered a lot of emergency generators, specifically to hospital facilities and to aqueduct facilities.  As far as we know, at least a third of those facilities, hospitals, and aqueduct plants are still working with emergency generators.  If that’s the case, I am pretty sure we are not close to 99 percent, not even 95 percent, recovered.  That doesn’t count, also, the people that are relying on their own generators, [living] without any electricity at all, or depending an improvised microgrids that some of the communities are developing right now.

After eight months, it’s difficult for a lot of people.  A lot of people are getting sick — mentally sick and physically sick just because they don’t have access to energy.  Financially it’s been very difficult for people to survive this emergency.

e360:  Following the storm, you and your colleagues argued that Puerto Rico needed to rebuild its energy infrastructure using renewable energy technology. Is progress being made in that direction?
Orama-Exclusa:  In my opinion, they have done nothing other than talking about it.  They have been talking about microgrids and building back better.  But, up to this point, there’s no building back better anywhere you look.  Even this month, the director of PREPA was talking in favor of continued carbon generation using coal, totally dropping the possibility of renewables because he said renewables are so expensive and coal is very inexpensive.

In Puerto Rico, right now, the most effective solution is rooftop solar, without batteries.  Even with batteries, at least for an emergency, you can have rooftop solar with some energy storage for less than 20 cents per kilowatt-hour.  And we’re paying 21 cents to PREPA [for fossil fuel-generated electricity].  The best thing is rooftop solar.  Obviously, in the meantime, we will need some fossil fuel generators.  We believe that those generators have to be small, flexible, and based on natural gas or biogas to accommodate the most penetration possible of renewables.  That has been our message.

e360:  Realistically, could solar and wind power 100 percent of the island?
Orama-Exclusa:  A couple of our researchers studied that question, and they discovered that we have enough renewable resources — wind, solar, water [hydropower], and biomass — to energize twice our actual consumption. It’s not that we can go 100 percent, we can even go 200 percent.

The other fact is that we spend $8 million on fossil fuels every day.  That is close to $3 billion on fossil fuels for electricity alone every year.  That money goes out of Puerto Rico, out of our economy. If we develop renewables, those monies will stay in the island.

So why are we still battling with fossil fuels?  In my opinion, it’s a political decision more than anything else.  There is no [official] vision in Puerto Rico to get to 100 percent [renewables].  Even today, if you hear what the PREPA and government officials are proposing, it is about 20 percent renewables by 2035.  It’s amazing that other parts of the world with a lot fewer renewable resources than we have are hoping for and are shooting for 100 percent, and we aren’t.

Read more at After the Storm, Puerto Rico Misses a Chance to Rebuild with Renewables

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