Hurricane Fiona reveals how Puerto Rico’s energy grid continues to be constructed 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. Among the energy has been restored, however 1.1 million customers are nonetheless at the hours of darkness as of Wednesday morning. It may be days earlier than all Puerto Ricans can swap on the lights and pump clean drinking water.

The blackout comes on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall, a storm that left wounds which might be nonetheless uncooked throughout Puerto Rico. Greater than 3,000 properties 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. Near 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, most at the hours of darkness aftermath.

The risks of a large blackout and the chance that it may occur once more have been definitely clear with each storm season since Maria. Whereas a hurricane could also be a drive 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 first island-wide blackout this 12 months.

“It’s a tragedy that almost all Puerto Ricans noticed coming,” mentioned Luis Martinez, southeast director for the Pure Sources Protection Council’s local weather and clear power program. “Not sufficient has been accomplished 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 paperwork, poor administration, underinvestment, and the inherent issue 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 properly currently, with climate extremes pushing demand to document 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 essential 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 consequence of its restricted assets, the territory imports the entire gas wanted to run its most important energy crops. Pure fuel offers 44 percent of the island’s electrical energy, petroleum 37 p.c, coal 17 p.c, and renewables 3 p.c.

Since gas must be shipped in, most of Puerto Rico’s energy crops are close to the coast, with the most important alongside its southern shoreline. However the principle 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 heart of the island, creating choke factors which might be susceptible to excessive climate and are arduous to achieve to restore.

Storms aren’t the one risk. Puerto Rico suffered an earthquake in 2020 that broken its two largest power plants, forcing them offline for months. That left the island teetering getting ready to outages. It reveals how energy technology concentrated in a couple of 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 many of the demand is within the north.
Energy Information 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 selections. Most notable, a tiny Montana firm referred to as Whitefish Vitality acquired a $300 million contract to revive the grid, however it was barely outfitted to deal with the job and charged greater than double the going charge 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 gas, significantly petroleum, left PREPA susceptible to worldwide market shocks: Rising gas costs through the years meant the corporate spent extra on simply holding its energy crops working and much lower than wanted to keep up 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 prospects. Even now, the corporate continues to be $8.2 billion in debt.

Federal support for reconstruction after Maria was additionally sluggish to trickle in. FEMA allotted $28 billion for restoration tasks in Puerto Rico, however only $5.3 billion of that cash was spent forward of Fiona. So lots of the proposals to make the island’s energy grid extra resilient had but to be carried out.

In 2020, a non-public firm referred to as LUMA Vitality picked up the duty of working Puerto Rico’s energy transmission system. However it too has confronted criticism for poor performance whereas additionally elevating electrical energy costs, which have greater than doubled since January 2021, in line with Martinez from the Pure Sources Protection Council. LUMA has been pursuing extra pure fuel 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 fuel has led to elevated competitors over US liquefied pure fuel exports. Sporadic blackouts continued beneath 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 another way that solely picked up after Maria. In 2019, the territory’s authorities handed the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act, which ended PREPA’s monopoly, set a 2028 deadline for phasing out coal energy, and requires the island to supply 40 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2025 and one hundred pc 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 embody 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 way 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 growing old wiring in individuals’s properties and regulatory hurdles. Some officers have been reluctant to change so aggressively to renewables.

“Puerto Rico could possibly be the large 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, told Politico in 2021.

On the identical time, Puerto Ricans who can afford to go solar are already doing so, with some going off the grid entirely. However that implies that Puerto Rico’s energy utilities need to distribute the prices of power amongst fewer prospects, 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 past decade as properly, 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 might be much less lucky on the island,” Martinez mentioned.

Puerto Rico isn’t alone in dealing with these challenges. A 2021 winter storm in Texas led not solely to intensive blackouts, however energy payments for some prospects as excessive as $17,000. Californians earlier this month received an urgent text message to chop their energy use to stave off blackouts as electrical energy demand reached a document excessive throughout a warmth wave. The US energy grid is way 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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