Hurricane Fiona shows how Puerto Rico’s power grid is still built to fail

The three.1 million residents of Puerto Rico discovered themselves in a depressingly acquainted island-wide blackout this week within the wake of Hurricane Fiona. A few of the energy has been restored, however 1.1 million clients are nonetheless at the hours of darkness as of Wednesday morning. It could be days earlier than all Puerto Ricans can swap on the lights and pump clear consuming water.
The blackout comes on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall, a storm that left wounds which are nonetheless uncooked throughout Puerto Rico. Greater than three,000 houses on the island nonetheless have tarps for roofs ensuing from Maria’s 174 mph winds. That hurricane triggered a devastating blackout that lasted for 11 months, casting a shadow of distress as individuals misplaced the facility wanted to purify water, refrigerate medication, and keep cool within the intense warmth. Shut to three,000 individuals died in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, most at the hours of darkness aftermath.
The hazards of a large blackout and the probability that it may occur once more have been actually clear with each storm season since Maria. Whereas a hurricane could also be a pressure of nature, the extent and length of the following energy outages are a perform of preparation and response. Puerto Rico’s energy grid was in dire form for years earlier than Maria’s landfall and remained so earlier than Fiona. Outages plagued the island for months forward of this week’s storm. This wasn’t even the primary island-wide blackout this 12 months.

“It’s a tragedy that the majority Puerto Ricans noticed coming,” mentioned Luis Martinez, southeast director for the Pure Assets Protection Council’s local weather and clear power program. “Not sufficient has been carried out to stabilize the system since Maria.”
Regardless of billions of dollars allotted to bolster Puerto Rico’s energy grid after Maria and ambitions to rebuild and rethink its power system, the identical hurdles that left the grid in a fragile state nonetheless stay: sluggish forms, poor administration, underinvestment, and the inherent problem of delivering energy on an island.
Puerto Rico’s state of affairs could also be excessive, however energy grids throughout the US have been flickering as nicely these days, with climate extremes pushing demand to file highs whereas throttling the output of electrical energy, most notably in California and Texas. These vulnerabilities are poised to develop as common temperatures proceed to rise due to local weather change, resulting in extra excessive warmth and extra extreme rainfall occasions.
That in thoughts, Puerto Rico’s blackouts are an vital warning of what may occur to extra locations if local weather change goes unaddressed and energy suppliers stay caught of their outdated methods of enterprise.
Fixing Puerto Rico’s energy grid is a tall order
Puerto Rico’s energy challenges start with its geography. As a result of its restricted sources, the territory imports the entire gasoline wanted to run its primary energy vegetation. Pure gasoline offers 44 % of the island’s electrical energy, petroleum 37 %, coal 17 %, and renewables three %.
Since gasoline needs to be shipped in, most of Puerto Rico’s energy vegetation are close to the coast, with the biggest alongside its southern shoreline. However the primary energy customers, together with the capital San Juan, are on the north of the island. That requires energy transmission strains to bridge throughout the mountainous middle of the island, creating choke factors which are weak to excessive climate and are laborious to achieve to restore.
Storms aren’t the one risk. Puerto Rico suffered an earthquake in 2020 that broken its two largest energy vegetation, forcing them offline for months. That left the island teetering getting ready to outages. It exhibits how energy technology concentrated in just a few areas can result in issues that ripple all through the grid.

Map of power generators in Puerto Rico

A lot of Puerto Rico’s energy is generated on the south of the island, whereas a lot of the demand is within the north.

Power Info Administration

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico wanted to put in 50,000 utility poles and 6,500 miles of cable, a few of which needed to be delivered to distant areas by helicopter. That’s a part of why restoring energy took such a very long time. The reconstruction course of was additionally hampered by poor choices. Most notable, a tiny Montana firm referred to as Whitefish Power acquired a $300 million contract to revive the grid, however it was barely geared up to deal with the job and charged greater than double the going price for its staff.
It didn’t assist that PREPA, Puerto Rico’s public energy utility, was already bankrupt when Maria hit. Puerto Rico’s dependence on imported gasoline, significantly petroleum, left PREPA weak to worldwide market shocks: Rising gasoline costs through the years meant the corporate spent extra on simply protecting its energy vegetation working and much lower than wanted to take care of transmission strains and substations in good order. PREPA itself confronted long-running accusations of mismanagement, and after Maria, senior officers on the firm have been accused of taking bribes to revive energy to favored clients. Even now, the corporate remains to be $eight.2 billion in debt.
Federal assist for reconstruction after Maria was additionally gradual to trickle in. FEMA allotted $28 billion for restoration tasks in Puerto Rico, however solely $5.three billion of that cash was spent forward of Fiona. So most of the proposals to make the island’s energy grid extra resilient had but to be applied.
In 2020, a personal firm referred to as LUMA Power picked up the duty of working Puerto Rico’s energy transmission system. But it surely too has confronted criticism for poor efficiency whereas additionally elevating electrical energy costs, which have greater than doubled since January 2021, in line with Martinez from the Pure Assets Protection Council. LUMA has been pursuing extra pure gasoline energy for the island, however international power costs spiked this 12 months. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s subsequent cutbacks on shopping for Russian pure gasoline has led to elevated competitors over US liquefied pure gasoline exports. Sporadic blackouts continued below LUMA, triggering protests throughout the island final 12 months.
The transition to renewables is already underway, however it’s not unfold evenly
Puerto Rico has ambitions of doing issues in a different way that solely picked up after Maria. In 2019, the territory’s authorities handed the Puerto Rico Power Public Coverage Act, which ended PREPA’s monopoly, set a 2028 deadline for phasing out coal energy, and requires the island to supply 40 % of its electrical energy from renewables by 2025 and 100 % by 2050.
Teams like Queremos Sol, which interprets as We Need the Solar, are serving to to advocate for this transition on the island. The proposals embrace bringing power manufacturing nearer to the place it’s used, minimizing reliance on long-distance transmission, in addition to fragmenting the distribution community into microgrids in order that an outage in a single space doesn’t ripple throughout the entire island. Additionally they need extra funding in financing to assist lower-income residents get instruments like photo voltaic panels and batteries to make sure extra dependable energy.
However Puerto Rico is much not on time, and a few photo voltaic tasks have struggled. Tesla’s efforts to put in photovoltaic panels and batteries on the close by island of Vieques have been stalled by getting old wiring in individuals’s houses and regulatory hurdles. Some officers have been reluctant to modify so aggressively to renewables.
“Puerto Rico could possibly be the massive experiment for the entire nation by way of having a diversified portfolio of power, not only one experiment by way of renewables,” Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s non-voting consultant in Congress, informed Politico in 2021.
On the identical time, Puerto Ricans who can afford to go photo voltaic are already doing so, with some going off the grid solely. However that signifies that Puerto Rico’s energy utilities need to distribute the prices of power amongst fewer clients, forcing costs to go up for a lot of of those that can least afford it. Puerto Rico’s inhabitants has been declining over the previous decade as nicely, and Maria accelerated that development.
“I believe Puerto Rico must be very intentional about the way it’s going to transition to not hurt the parents which are much less lucky on the island,” Martinez mentioned.
Puerto Rico shouldn’t be alone in going through these challenges. A 2021 winter storm in Texas led not solely to intensive blackouts, however energy payments for some clients as excessive as $17,000. Californians earlier this month acquired an pressing textual content message to chop their energy use to stave off blackouts as electrical energy demand reached a file excessive throughout a warmth wave. The US energy grid is much extra fragile than many have realized. Fixing it up would require not simply hardware, however a approach of sharing the burden equitably.

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