Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Energy companies are scrambling to get solar microgrids up and running—and imagining a future that leans away from diesel.
Weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, the vast majority of the island is still in the dark.
Rebooting the grid will be an ongoing task—but many experts say that the end game should be something other than just reinvigorating the existing infrastructure. Turning to solar energy would be a long-term boost to the island’s sustainability, but it could also provide short-term benefits: As part of microgrids, solar panels could expedite a return to power for some of the most vulnerable parts of the country.
Already, a handful of companies, including Tesla and sonnen, a German manufacturer of energy-storage batteries, have pledged to buoy Puerto Rico’s solar infrastructure. On Thursday, Elon Musk tweeted an offer to help Puerto Rico reimagine its entire energy landscape.
“The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too,” he wrote. “Such a decision would be in the hands of the PR govt, PUC, any commercial stakeholders and, most importantly, the people of PR.”
And the governor responded:
More immediately, with Pura Energia, a solar panel installation firm in Puerto Rico, sonnen plans to install a series of completely subsidized microgrids.
Pura Energia and sonnen currently have fewer than 20 residential customers on the island and they’re largely concentrated in San Juan and Ponce, according to Blake Richetta, head of U.S. operations for sonnen. Earther pointed out that, across the island, just 2 percent of energy comes from renewable sources.
Before the storm, Puerto Rico’s energy landscape leaned heavily on diesel and oil. Customers paid hefty fees to PREPA, the island’s buckling utility provider that filed for bankruptcy in July.
Sonnen’s new project, called Puerto Rico Energy Security Initiative (PRESI), will zero in on the most dire circumstances. According to Richetta, the setups will try to make a dent in some of urgent and acute needs that could spiral out into an even deeper public health crisis. Richetta says the partners are still working to get a handle on the lay of the land and assess which placements are feasible—but that their focus will be targeting clinics and shelters in impoverished areas with high medical needs.
The goal, Richetta says, is to get the first microgrid up and running by the end of October and then another five in November, with more to follow. He estimates the installation fee at $100,000 apiece, including the cost of labor. These setups won’t be able to supply air-conditioning to a high-rise, but will capture, store, and discharge enough to power lights, window A/C units, and refrigerators. Richetta describes the relatively modest scope as a tangible, scalable way to make an immediate impact. A former Tesla employee, Richetta says that the renewables industry is often dogged by “bullshit Bingo.” And, he says, “no one wants to win at that game.”
As part of disaster recovery, pop-up solar infrastructure is “absolutely essential,” writes Judith Enck, the former EPA administrator for region 2, via email. “Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands needed it yesterday.”
Andrew Schroeder, research director at the humanitarian nonprofit Direct Relief, advocates for locating solar-related relief efforts on the interior of the country, where existing inequalities could be compounded by long-term outages. Schroeder says these areas tend to be medically underserved. And with such profound damage to local infrastructure, it can prove difficult to shore up supplies at clinics and hospitals. His team is currently in the process of distributing 25,000 units of insulin, which requires refrigeration. Dialysis patients, people with respiratory illness, and many other people managing chronic conditions all require reliable access to energy sources. To Schroeder, the most immediate goal is meeting those needs. Then, “as time goes on, we’re looking at investments in the communities,” he says. “What does a future health center look like? In Puerto Rico, changing their options for power generation is going to be right at the top of the list.”
Ten years ago, Schroeder adds, it was relatively unusual for health clinics to be outfitted with solar panels, or to draw from sources other than fossil fuels. Now, he points to clinics in Kenya, Tanzania, West Africa, the Philippines, and the Caribbean that rely at least partially on solar for their energy needs. “It’s hard to get diesel generation,” he says. Relying on a localized grid is a workaround—and a step toward resiliency when the stakes are extremely high. With human lives at stake, he adds, “you can’t have it so that with one storm, nothing works anymore.”
But if the island faces storms of similar magnitude in the future, how might microgrids fare? Solar arrays are somewhat vulnerable to being shredded by torrents of rain and hurricane-force gusts. “I doubt that any solar array was built with 200 mile-per-hour winds in mind,” says Robert Stoner, deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative, whose work centers on renewable energy in the developing world. But he also points to a number of tactics that could offer some degree of insurance against raging storms, such as siting large-scale arrays in clearings, far from trees. On the residential side, arrays on flexible plastic backing could be rolled up and tucked away before the wildest winds, and redundant wiring could keep panels functional even if portions go down.
Whatever the workaround, Stoner says, Puerto Rico “shouldn’t be allowed to rebuild the grid without incorporating resiliency measures.”