Column SDG 7: Energy Special: Puerto Rico

During our darkest moments, focus to see the light

In this second installment of the TRJ post-Maria series, we find an energy transformation that is deeper, more inevitable and must happen faster than you might think.

The quote is Aristotle’s. “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

And has this been Puerto Rico’s darkest moment. Literally. The longest power blackout, not just here, but in U.S. history and third worst in all the world since the dawn of electrification in the 1880s.

Residents of Puerto Rico are just now getting to 95% service restoration, seven months after Hurricane Maria shut down all power generation and downed 70% of transmission and distribution lines. You can take a look back with this Google search.

Today, power leaders are on the task. They are meeting feverishly. Looking for solutions tirelessly.

But are they seeing the light? Are they looking, focusing, in the right place?

No, it turns out. They aren’t. Not yet.

It is pretty clear where they intend to go, where the winds are blowing at the moment, what goes for energy resilience in their minds. You can easily search for that answer, as well, and it is not encouraging.

That creates a task for the rest of us: How can we get this well-meaning group to focus on the future Puerto Rico will actually face? The one for which they are about to redesign and rebuild the island’s entire power system.

Were they to acquire this new vision, would human and political dynamics allow for a dramatically different, and truly resilient, plan? Is that scenario even possible? And what lessons can other islands of the world draw from this experience?

The current path forward at this seven-month mark remains in flux but can be gleaned from three sources:

  1. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s bill to privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
  2. This December 2017 Working Group report led by a range of New York state advisors.
  3. A U.S. Department of Energy master plan due out in June, the broad strokes of which have been advanced by DOE Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker.

A fourth idea recently entered the conversation, a mode of federal takeover of PREPA, but that has yet to gain any traction.

There is, to be sure, a healthy measure of good news there. Renewable power would go from 3% of total generation today to 30%, combining utility-scale and rooftop. A network of microgrids would become part of the system for the first time, reducing outage length in the fortunate communities and facilities. Transmission and distribution lines would be hardened significantly. Energy efficiency, demand response, smart-grid technology, and other intelligent improvements would also make the island more resilient.

The running estimate for this stands at $17-$18 billion, which the federal government has pledged to grant. Completion timeline is roughly a decade, say by 2030.

Not the mistake you want to make

That would all be awesome for the island’s future, except the island’s future will in all likelihood force yet another rebuild right around the time we’ll be completing this one.

Which begs THE question: Why not get it right today? And more so now that the island will have the money!

The latest and fairly clear picture of where that future is headed came only last week, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense in this head-turning study, which confirmed this recent peer-reviewed study by a Columbia University-led team of climate scientists.

You need to read both, but I’ll give you two highlights:

  • The frequency and intensity of storms and hurricanes will absolutely overwhelm the transmission/distribution-line hardening being contemplated today, rendering useless all generation that feeds those lines, including utility-scale renewables.
  • Sea-level rise, storm surges and flooding will decommission most if not all coastal power facilities. In Puerto Rico, that will include every one of the island’s power plants. All of them.

Wait. Read that again. The magnitude of those impacts must not go down lightly.

Estimated date for these climate changes to kick into high gear: mid-century, or a scant 30 years from now, though the DOD study says constant annual flooding will make coastal life and infrastructure essentially unfeasible well before that, and the Columbia study says the monster storms will become far more frequent sooner, as well.

Did you get that? The timing? The few years we have to rethink, reinvent and execute?

Behind those scenarios is the increasingly certain science, seen here and here, that points to the feared 2º Celsius rise in average global temperatures at or before the same mid-century mark.

That’s the threshold scientists have been warning about for years, because it will create extreme-weather impacts that will escalate, or become progressively worse, and which therefore call for a different understanding of what constitutes energy resilience in light of these future risks — in Puerto Rico and every island and vulnerable coast on the planet.

Let’s be smart about this

Go back to the three sources above, the PREPA privatization legislation, the New York Working Group, and DOE’s upcoming plan in June.

The first thing to consider is the sheer number of highly credentialed people who participated, and continue highly active, in these and other efforts. If only they came to embrace, fully, the magnitude of these studies and scenarios, because they do have the brainpower to shift gears swiftly and get this right.

…to focus, as it were, on those escalating future risks and choose instead the ONLY energy infrastructure that can withstand those climate impacts and secure a functional economy and society.

There are but two pathways here. One is to relocate all power plants inland and place cabling underground. The other is to retire those plants, bring down the lines, and shift instead to an entirely new model that relies only on rooftop solar, district microgrids powered by solar, and battery storage to back up the rooftops and microgrids. Both pathways would include multiple and far-reaching efficiency and demand-management measures.

The cost comparison — well, there can hardly be one, can there. The feasibility and time comparison is, on the one hand, siting and hardening the new plants and substations, engineering the undergrounding of some 33,000 miles of cables through either densely populated or mountainous terrain, and the other fine points of the first option, versus installing solar+storage systems on about half the island’s roofs and building the microgrid network.

Given the limited funds available and, perhaps more importantly, the little time left before we completely lose the current system and would need to have the new one fully in place, the choice is as clear as wind. Path II wins.

More so when one considers the overwhelming evidence in its favor. This December 2017 report by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) offers all the reassurance anyone might need, particularly to counter the known old arguments that usually question the viability and smarts of such a system.

“The improving economics and emerging capabilities of renewable energy, storage, and microgrids create an opportunity to set aside the grid design of the past and reinvest in Puerto Rico for a resilient, cost-effective and clean energy future, while making it a beacon for 21st century systems.”

The report validates page 15 of this much-cited 2009 analysis by the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, which concluded also without question that the island’s entire power demand can be met by solar panels on 65% of all rooftops.

Fast forward to 2016 and this UPR project still in development. Aptly called OASIS, it is one of the most promising distributed-energy innovations in the world, as it introduces a next-generation smart-grid design that would integrate those rooftop panels, microgrids and batteries, along with efficiency and demand-management enhancements, for optimal results.

On the latter, RMI cites a third landmark UPR study this one in 2013, projecting “26% energy savings in Puerto Rico over a 10-year period.”

EDITOR’S NOTE. Two days after publishing this column, my friend Kimberly White of the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce shared this story in LinkedIn, an update on the truly dramatic growth of citizen and off-grid solar in Europe and around the world, showing once more that the technology has arrived and massive scale is not just possible, but the one great hope for resilient power.

Talk about a beacon for 21st century energy! Go this route, invest the $17 billion in this, and Puerto Rico will have the very first all-rooftop-microgrid-and-storage power system in the world.

It would be tailor-made, more broadly, for the islands of the world, and in the case of Puerto Rico, for the new economy emerging from the island’s fiscal and recessionary ashes (the subject of an upcoming story in this Puerto Rico & Islands Resilience Series).

As the clock ticks

It throws us back, though, to the initial cloud mentioned above, whether human and political dynamics will allow this to happen at all — the paralyzing preoccupation with the fiscal crisis, the blinding obsession with saving PREPA and its debt payments, the partisan bickering, the distracting debate over Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S.

Meanwhile, the climate-change clock ticks perilously. Ruthlessly. The science on that cannot be clearer, nor the technical and financial angles of this energy transformation, nor even the colossal economic and social implications of getting it wrong.

For indeed, were power leaders to continue focusing on the wrong things, the phrase darkest moment will take on, not the literal meaning of outages and blackouts, but the more menacing specter of yet another island lost to the unforgiving winds and seas of change.

This is the second installment of Puerto Rico & Island Resilience, a special content series and deep dive by TRJ on lessons the post-Maria Puerto Rico example holds for the islands of the world given their unique vulnerabilities to the escalating future risks of climate change.

Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent strategist, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor-Publisher of The Resilience Journal and Founder-President of COMMON Future, a climate-adaptation studio scaling game-changing Next Resilience with communications, construction and culture. Alex is also communications adviser to the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and resilience lead at the Puerto Rico chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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