Why Is Puerto Rico Still Without Power?

This past week, Puerto Rico experienced yet another island-wide blackout, seven months after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Earlier, the very same day as the blackout, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) had reported that 97% of the island’s 1.5 million people had finally had their power restored. After this latest power outrage, however, that number is back down to 0%.

It is being reported that the failure originated from Aguirre Central, a facility that left the entire island without power for three days in 2016 after a plant failure and subsequent fire. This time, a contractor was removing a collapsed tower when a bulldozer crossed a power line and caused it to fail. A cascading failure triggered through the entire system, and, quickly, the entire grid was down.

Prior to this incident, the recovery effort had only impacted about 80% of the population in five months’ time. However, with more experience and new energy-resiliency, PREPA claimed it would only take them 24 to 36 hours to restore power after this latest development.

Granted, the nature of this outage differs from the wake of a category 4 hurricane – the damage is less extensive. Still, more than half a year after catastrophe, how can Puerto Rico’s vital energy systems still be so vulnerable on such a large scale?

A central topic of debate between the plans to secure energy-stability in Puerto Rico is the subject of microgrid technology.

An Old Facility Fails Again

The facility where the latest outrage originated was a station attached to Puerto Rico’s centralized power-grid. The grid connects all the like-stations on the island and serves as the conduit for almost all power transmissions in Puerto Rico. This completely connected system comes with real complications.

On “the edges” of the grid, power lines are stretched up mountainsides and over difficult terrain. These lines are expensive to install, maintain, and repair, as well as vulnerable to elements that threaten energy stability. These places are also vulnerable by the extension of the larger grid, which is by no means secure. Centralized power can be disrupted, as it was earlier this week, and the consequences can spread throughout the grid. The outage cascades, as it did this week, and any unprotected energy networks are impacted.

PREPA maintains a monopoly over the grid. Microgrids (and their private-sector financial backers) represent a real competitive threat to the company racked with debt. As government efforts have stepped up, streamlining the approval process for more microgrid investments in Puerto Rico, PREPA has asked the administration to take a step back.

While the company publicly supports microgrids and even utilized them as part of their recovery effort, PREPA claims that a misguided “attempt to promote microgrids can cause serious harm”. According to a press release, they believe that “[h]andled poorly, the [microgrid operators] can avoid regulation, and ‘cherry-pick’ PREPA’s load, resulting in PREPA’s grid and overall customer base being fragmented or shattered, to the detriment of the public as a whole”.

This detriment comes as a very real complication: PREPA is not only the largest (sole) provider of energy on the island, it is also historically Puerto Rico’s largest employer. Four powerful unions representing the company’s near 10,000 employees object to criticisms leveraged at PREPA; criticisms they see as vehicles to push a political agenda to privatize PREPA.

Whatever the vehicle, the push to privatize PREPA is no secret. Since austerity measures in 2014 forced many skilled laborers and professionals to retire early and collect pensions before cuts, the company and its electrical systems have been severely underserved. The company’s first audit was just last year and the findings were disturbing.

Conducted and published by Synapse Energy, a Massachusetts Energy & Economics consulting firm, the audit revealed the grid infrastructure to be in desperate need of repair. They found that power lines were “cracking, corroding and collapsing”. Still, PREPA’s costs continued to rise, as did their customer’s rates, but no serious efforts to repair infrastructure were made until after Hurricane Maria hit.

How Microgrids Can Help

Microgrids offer a series of advantages that provide immediate benefit to Puerto Rican infrastructure. One of MCFA’s most knowledge experts on the subject, Sam Cubberly, wrote an article explaining the technology and its upsides: Microgrid – No Small Achievement.

Their main selling-point is the ability to operate in island-mode. A microgrid can run in island-mode or integrated as part of a larger grid, but in island-mode it is isolated from any cascading failures like the one that took out Puerto Rico’s power this week.

This single feature contrasts to the failure of PREPA’s service to remote communities. These areas, where service is stretched over treacherous terrain, would benefit from a system capable of generating and supplying power on a small-scale independently. There is the ability to stay integrated on larger interconnected grids, but a microgrid retains flexibility to be self-sufficient when centralized power fails.

Installation and construction costs is the major pain point when considering microgrids. Although, in this instance, the initial costs are outweighed by the installation costs and the maintenance of power lines over these isolated areas.

Island mode allows for these systems to pull out of the grid while still generating localized power. Microgrids offer unique stability to regions of Puerto Rico that have historically, even before Hurricane Maria, had issues getting reliable and consistent service from PREPA’s centralized energy infrastructure.

Microgrids also offer an opportunity to positively disrupt an industry that stagnated under monopoly. Without true competitors, the Puerto Rican energy industry had no incentive to innovate. Even as infrastructure was neglected, costs for Puerto Rican customers continued to rise without any pressure on PREPA to price competitively. Without these market conditions and with the special protections of monopoly status, an insulated PREPA was overcome by poor management. Costs continue to rise, but revenues could not keep up. Their credit rating plummeted, investors left, and, just before the hurricane, PREPA declared bankruptcy.

Today, the government of Puerto Rico and relief efforts are investing a lot of money into microgrids. More than $1B of the proposed relief package is dedicated to microgrids entirely. These 159 microgrids will power critical facilities, such as hospitals and water treatment centers, before widespread relief can come. A few microgrids will be stationed remotely for off-grid communities.

Microgrids provide more than simply electricity. They represent a decentralized energy-autonomy for all of Puerto Rico. Microgrids, independent of the grid, empower the residents of rural Puerto Rico with the promise of sustainable resources. They can spur innovation, bring new business, and soften the fallout as PREPA dissolves. Microgrids will lower utility costs and can be powered by renewable energy. If Puerto Rico invests wisely, it can capitalize as a model of sustainable energy after so many years of being bogged down by fossil fuels.

So why is Puerto Rico still without power? It has taken time to make the necessary shift towards microgrids. Innovation and government incentives have driven costs down and now we’re seeing more microgrids pop up. Soon, sustainable decentralized island-wide power can be a reality for Puerto Rico and, perhaps, even a model for the world.