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Why all Americans ought to be watching Puerto Ricos power grid

The 3.1 million residents of Puerto Rico found themselves in a depressingly familiar island-wide blackout this week in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. A few of the power has been restored, but 1.1 million customers remain at night by Wednesday morning. It could be days before all Puerto Ricans can activate the lights and pump clean normal water.

The blackout occurs the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Marias landfall, a storm that left wounds which are still raw across Puerto Rico. A lot more than 3,000 homes on the island still have tarps for roofs caused by Marias 174 mph winds. That hurricane triggered a devastating blackout that lasted for 11 months, casting a shadow of misery as people lost the energy had a need to purify water, refrigerate medicine, and stay cool in the intense heat. Near 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, most at night aftermath.

The dangers of an enormous blackout and the chance that it might happen again were certainly clear with every storm season since Maria. While a hurricane can be a force of nature, the extent and duration of the ensuing power outages certainly are a function of preparation and response. Puerto Ricos power grid was in dire shape for a long time before Marias landfall and remained so before Fiona. Outages plagued the island for months before this weeks storm. This wasnt even the first island-wide blackout this season.

Its a tragedy that a lot of Puerto Ricans saw coming, said Luis Martinez, southeast director for the Natural Resources Defense Councils climate and clean energy program. Insufficient has been done to stabilize the machine since Maria.


Despite vast amounts of dollars assigned to bolster Puerto Ricos power grid after Maria and ambitions to rebuild and rethink its energy system, exactly the same hurdles that left the grid in a fragile state still remain: sluggish bureaucracy, poor management, underinvestment, and the inherent difficulty of delivering power on an island.

Puerto Ricos situation could be extreme, but power grids over the US have already been flickering aswell lately, with weather extremes pushing demand to record highs while throttling the output of electricity, especially in California and Texas. These vulnerabilities are poised to cultivate as average temperatures continue steadily to rise due to climate change, resulting in more extreme heat and much more severe rainfall events.

That at heart, Puerto Ricos blackouts are a significant warning of what can happen to more places if climate change goes unaddressed and power providers remain stuck within their old means of business.

Fixing Puerto Ricos power grid is really a tall order

Puerto Ricos power challenges start out with its geography. Because of its limited resources, the territory imports all the fuel had a need to run its main power plants. Gas provides 44 percent of the hawaiian islands electricity, petroleum 37 percent, coal 17 percent, and renewables 3 percent.

Since fuel needs to be shipped in, the majority of Puerto Ricos power plants are close to the coast, with the biggest along its southern shoreline. However the main power consumers, like the capital San Juan, are on the north of the island. That will require power transmission lines to bridge over the mountainous center of the island, creating choke points which are susceptible to extreme weather and so are hard to attain to correct.

Storms arent the only real threat. Puerto Rico suffered an earthquake in 2020 that damaged its two largest power plants, forcing them offline for months. That left the island teetering on the brink of outages. It shows how power generation concentrated in several areas can result in issues that ripple through the entire grid.

Map of power generators in Puerto Rico
A lot of Puerto Ricos power is generated on the south of the island, some of the demand is in the north.
Energy Information Administration

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico had a need to install 50,000 utility poles and 6,500 miles of cable, a few of which needed to be sent to remote areas by helicopter. Thats section of why restoring power took so very long. The reconstruction process was also hampered by poor decisions. Perhaps most obviously, a little Montana company called Whitefish Energy received a $300 million contract to revive the grid, nonetheless it was barely equipped to take care of the work and charged a lot more than double the going rate because of its workers.

It didnt help that PREPA, Puerto Ricos public power utility, had been bankrupt when Maria hit. Puerto Ricos reliance on imported fuel, particularly petroleum, left PREPA susceptible to international market shocks: Rising fuel costs through the years meant the business spent more on just keeping its power plants running and much less than had a need to maintain transmission lines and substations in good order. PREPA itself faced long-running accusations of mismanagement, and after Maria, senior officials at the business were accused of taking bribes to revive capacity to favored customers. Nonetheless, the business continues to be $8.2 billion with debt.

Federal aid for reconstruction after Maria was also slow to trickle in. FEMA allocated $28 billion for recovery projects in Puerto Rico, but only $5.3 billion of this money was spent before Fiona. So lots of the proposals to help make the islands power grid more resilient had yet to be implemented.

In 2020, an exclusive company called LUMA Energy found the duty of running Puerto Ricos power transmission system. Nonetheless it too has faced criticism for poor performance while also raising electricity prices, that have a lot more than doubled since January 2021, in accordance with Martinez from the Natural Resources Defense Council. LUMA has been pursuing more gas power for the island, but global energy prices spiked this season. Russias invasion of Ukraine and Europes subsequent cutbacks on buying Russian gas has resulted in increased competition over US liquefied gas exports. Sporadic blackouts continued under LUMA, triggering protests over the island this past year.

The transition to renewables has already been underway, but its not spread evenly

Puerto Rico has ambitions to do things differently that only found after Maria. In 2019, the territorys government passed the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act, which ended PREPAs monopoly, set a 2028 deadline for phasing out coal power, and requires the island to source 40 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2025 and 100 percent by 2050.

Groups like Queremos Sol, which means We Want sunlight, are assisting to advocate because of this transition on the island. The proposals include bringing energy production nearer to where its used, minimizing reliance on long-distance transmission, in addition to fragmenting the distribution network into microgrids in order that an outage in a single area doesnt ripple over the whole island. In addition they want more investment in financing to greatly help lower-income residents get tools like solar power panels and batteries to make sure more reliable power.

But Puerto Rico is far behind schedule, plus some solar projects have struggled. Teslas efforts to set up photovoltaic panels and batteries on the nearby island of Vieques were stalled by aging wiring in peoples homes and regulatory hurdles. Some officials have already been reluctant to change so aggressively to renewables.

Puerto Rico may be the big experiment for your nation when it comes to having a diversified portfolio of energy, not only one experiment when it comes to renewables, Jenniffer Gonzlez-Coln, Puerto Ricos non-voting representative in Congress, told Politico in 2021.

Simultaneously, Puerto Ricans who are able to go solar already are doing this, with some going off the grid entirely. But which means that Puerto Ricos power utilities need to distribute the expenses of energy among fewer customers, forcing prices to move up for many of these who is able to least afford it. Puerto Ricos population has been declining in the last decade aswell, and Maria accelerated that trend.

I believe Puerto Rico must be very intentional about how exactly its likely to transition never to harm the people which are less fortunate on the island, Martinez said.

Puerto Rico isn’t alone in facing these challenges. A 2021 winter storm in Texas led not merely to extensive blackouts, but power bills for a few customers as high as $17,000. Californians earlier this month received an urgent text to cut their power use to push away blackouts as electricity demand reached an archive high throughout a heat wave. THE UNITED STATES power grid is a lot more fragile than many have realized. Fixing it up will demand not only hardware, but a means of sharing the responsibility equitably.

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