by Elizabeth Arnold
The first half of the day was especially rich for us energy geeks. Our group, along with some great SUNY-Albany students and professor, had the pleasure of a presentation and discussion with Dr. Lionel R. Orama-Exclusa, Faculty of Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez (UPRM) and Member of the Steering Committee of the National Institute of Energy and Island Sustainability (INESI). Dr. Orama presented on INESI’s work to address wicked problems involving energy and sustainability. Here are a few tidbits and takeaways from the three-hour discussion to give you a sense of what parts of the energy system were knocked offline with the fury of Hurricane Maria and what needs to be taken into consideration in a transition to a new energy paradigm where people are not left in the dark for up to a year.
Maria caused the second longest blackout in the world (first was in the Philippines in 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan). Puerto Ricans suffered 3 billion consumer hours of lost electric service (CHoLES) after the hurricane season.
Maria and Irma caused substantial failures across Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure:
2,478 miles of transmission and sub-transmission lines, 48 transmission centers, 31,446 miles of overhead lines, 1,723 miles of underground lines, and 293 substations failed in the hurricane season.
Energy transitions are purpose-driven social changes, not just a swapping out of one technology for another. INESI is interdisciplinary and connects experts from regions across Puerto Rico in order to address the geographic and social conditions particular to each community. Central to the energy transition envisioned by INESI, and partially underway by entities and communities with shared values, are increased equity, resilience, and sustainability in the energy system.
Equity is essential to reduce disparities in energy access and to ensure that the new system distributes power in a way that serves all Puerto Ricans well. The time it took to bring electricity back to communities in some parts of the island versus others was a dramatic difference of as much as 10 months. Some homes mere blocks away from another regained power five months apart. The trauma of living without power made evident for Puerto Ricans many of the invisible impacts of electricity on every aspect of daily life. Everything is interconnected.
Resilience needs to be ensured first at the household level in order to both increase equity and to ensure basic community resilience and electricity access. If the last 200,000 households to regain power had installed solar on their homes before Hurricane Maria, the blackout would have lasted less than half as long as it did -- 156 days as opposed to 329 days.
Sustainability is both financial and environmental. PREPA pays over $1 billion per year for fossil fuels needed for energy generation, and when oil prices were higher, it was twice that amount. Paying billions of dollars per year for fuel for power generation is not economically sustainable. The climate and health impacts of fossil fuels are not economically or environmentally sustainable.
What does it mean to “build back better?” If you have read anything about the electric grid in Puerto Rico, you know that many of the power generation facilities are in the south with transmission lines that connect them to population centers in the north. Most discussion about ‘building back better’ has focused on the transmission lines. Dr. Orama pointed out that the existing transmission lines that failed during Maria were actually built to the requirements of code which factor in 190-200 mile-per-hour wind speeds. New transmission lines would likely not exceed the current code, and therefore, they would similarly be no more likely to withstand future hurricanes. Burying the transmission lines underground would appear to be a more resilient option. However, once you consider the central mountains (Cordillera) and the cost, underground lines are no longer as attractive as distributed energy resources in as many places as they might first appear. Investing the majority of funds available in “harder” transmission systems would be extremely short-sighted.
Listening to Prof. Orama it is clear that funds for energy system improvements would be better spent on distributed generation and local distribution of that energy where populations live, which would provide communities with more resilience in the face of future hurricanes and earthquakes. PREPA has a huge opportunity for improvement through effective investments in distributed renewable generation, energy efficiency, demand response, and microgrids.