How Solar and Storage Can Save Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico will remember the fall of 2017 for years to come. The month of September produced two major hurricanes, Irma and Maria, which left the U.S Caribbean island territories infrastructure devastated. Months later some parts of the island are still without power and the need for a grid solution that is more storm resistant and energy efficient has become apparent.
September 2017 Storms
Hurricane Irma developed in the Atlantic off the coast of South Africa in late August and quickly grew into a Category 4 Storm by Monday, September 4th. One of the most massive storms ever recorded, becoming a Category 5 Hurricane the next day with sustained wind speeds of 185 MPH, Irma tracked northwest through the Caribbean before turning north, towards the gulf coast, leaving destruction in her path.
Irma skirted Puerto Rico as a Category 5 Hurricane on Wednesday, September 6th, with the eye of the storm staying at sea, but produced severe flooding and substantial damage in some areas. The hurricane hammered the island with winds as high as 100 MPH eventually leaving four dead and two-thirds of the island without power. The loss of electricity across the island left over one-third of the island with no access to clean water.
On Wednesday, September 13 a trough of low pressure in the tropical Atlantic, moving west to east, developed and was identified by the National Hurricane Center as having the potential to strengthen into a hurricane. The National Weather Service announced that the storm was officially Hurricane Maria on Sunday, September 17, at 5 p.m., and warned that the storm had the potential to become a dangerous major hurricane that would likely affect Puerto Rico, with an estimated landfall of Wednesday, September 20th.
Still reeling from the aftermath of Irma, as predicted, Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on the morning of September 20th with maximum sustained winds of 155 MPH. The first storm of its magnitude to hit the island since 1932, Category 4 Maria is nearly a Category 5 hurricane, defined as having wind speeds that exceed 157 MPH. Wind damage to National Weather Service sensors caused meteorologists to measure the storms force solely through the use of satellites.
On Wednesday, Maria dumped as much as 30 inches of rain in areas, disrupting power to the entire island and leaving most of the population without access to safe drinking water. Rain continued for over 30 hours, and on Thursday authorities reported ten deaths and widespread catastrophic flooding. Worse than any storm in U.S. history, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc and caused widespread devastation across the island of Puerto Rico.
Destruction of Power Grid
On September 19th, with Maria’s impact inevitable, Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA) engineers monitored the situation attempting to minimize disruptions and damage. From a San Juan control room, they watched real-time data of grid conditions and, as transmission lines began to fail in succession, discussed strategies to protect the remaining transmission system. By evening, the actual magnitude of the situation became apparent, as winds began to topple transmission towers, break concrete power poles, and damage power plants.
At 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, with Maria still four hours away, Puerto Rico’s power grid failed, plunging the entire island into a total blackout. The extent of damage Maria caused to Puerto Rico’s power grid was immediately evident and on Thursday, 24 hours after landfall, PREPA chief executive, Ricardo Ramos, advised that Maria had destroyed the islands entire electrical infrastructure.
The Effect on Puerto Ricans
Hurricane Maria created the longest blackout in U.S. history and left Puerto Ricans without electricity for months. The lack of power meant that water treatment plants couldn’t operate and disrupted cell phone and Internet access, severely impacting the islands communication capability. Stores and restaurants, unable to maintain refrigeration, along with offices and factories were forced to close, and tourism completely halted.
Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents struggled with basic health care due to the lack of electricity needed for medical equipment and access to water for sanitation. The official death toll attributed to Maria is 64, but the number may be much higher. Several studies suggest that the long-term lack of medical care, along with other factors, caused the deaths of over 1000 people. Maria closed schools for months and nearly 200,000 Puerto Ricans left for mainland United States for medical care, work, education, or just modern comforts.
Current Power Grid Situation
In early March, nearly six months after Maria, U.S. officials reported that close to 1.5 million PREPA customers, 84% have their power restored, but that many remote areas may not get service until May. Progress is slow with power lines and palm trees still leaning over many roads and outages are common. A March 1st outage cut service to 800,000 residents, affecting the capital of Puerto Rico and surrounding area.
The lengthy and controversial recovery and rebuilding effort have highlighted the vulnerability of the existing system and the urgent need to develop a more resilient power grid. The disaster in Puerto Rico has also generated many creative and exciting technological options, designed to minimize vulnerabilities of modern electrical networks.
While rebuilding the traditional grid continues, solar energy has already filled the void successfully for many. A San Juan solar power engineer, volunteering in Maria’s aftermath, became aware of residents in his neighborhood in need of medical assistance. He observed that essential but straightforward medical devices such as nebulizers, adjustable beds and mini-fridges for insulin could operate with small solar systems. He and a colleague scrounged parts and began building and distributing the systems.
The pair installed its first system for the family of a five-year-old boy with severe asthma who uses a nebulizer. A single 255-watt solar panel on the apartment building rooftop and a cord led to a plastic tub on the apartment balcony holding a 20 amp charge controller, 500-watt inverter, and two deep-cycle lead-acid batteries solving the problem.
A San Juan family was able to restore power within months with the installation of solar panels and a battery storage system, operating separate from the power grid and supplying electricity 24 hours a day. The family had already installed panels before Maria, but the $10,000 cost of a battery storage system means they no longer have to depend on an unreliable grid or an expensive generator. Interest in the their success led to plans for a community solar microgrid with battery storage project capable of serving 3,000 homes. The microgrid will be the first one of its size to operate separately, allowing the microgrid to stay up even if the main grid goes down.
The need for power attracted the attention of the world with the solar industry collaborating with various organizations and local groups to provide power for water treatment facilities and volunteer housing facilities. Solar systems also provided power to community kitchens and medical clinics across the island.
The Grid Before the Storm
Puerto Rico’s power grid was plagued with issues before Maria as evidenced by a PREPA report issued ten months before the hurricane warning that the energy infrastructure was facing a “crisis. The report stated that Puerto Ricans experience service outages four to five times more frequently than average U.S. utility customers and blamed the issues on inadequate maintenance of infrastructure and lack of competent staff.
Years of deferred maintenance led to a collapsing grid in need of at least $4 billion for modernization of a system in isolated and challenging terrain. Falling revenues and diminished staff exacerbated the lack of investment in existing and new infrastructure creating an old grid susceptible to collapse. Maria’s impact would strain any utility providers resources, but PREPA was attempting to deal with about $8 billion in debt and finance an operational overhaul when Hurricane Maria landed.
Considering that it is April and the next hurricane season starts just two months from now, solarizing Puerto Rico is as important as ever. The 2018 hurricane season is already predicted to have an above average number of named storms. As of this writing there are still over 61,000 without power.
Rebuilding with solar and battery storage may be better than the fossil fuel powered utility grid ever was, eliminating the high cost of electricity and the lowering the demand for coal, oil, and other traditional fuel sources. Unlike power plants and the traditional grid, solar panels and systems are capable of surviving severe weather, even the 150 mile-per-hour winds that Maria generated. Puerto Rican communities, with plenty of sunshine all year, need to rebuild with smarter, more resilient, diversified power sources, and solar and storage is leading the way in energy infrastructure for places prone to extreme weather.
mtvSolar is in early planning stages to help provide power in Puerto Rico. To learn more about preparing for storms, contact us today for a free consultation.