100% Renewable Puerto Rico

by Kristy Dellwo

As the threat of climate change has accelerated and sustainability has become a major buzz word among environmentalists, many small island nations all over the world have adapted by incorporating renewable sources of energy into their energy systems; and in some cases, have become completely independent from fossil fuels. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September of 2017, the Caribbean island has considered the total shift to renewable energy as well. This has been an especially important conversation because of the severity of the power outages across the entire island after the storm and the inability to get electricity back up and running for everyone until many months after the event. Currently, a clean energy bill has been proposed by lawmakers on the island that would commit Puerto Rico to getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources of energy by 2050 (McKenna, 2018).

However, as the shift to renewable energy has started, there have been many questions and concerns presented. One of the bigger questions being asked is whether or not a 100 percent renewable energy system in Puerto Rico is viable in the short term, and if renewable sources on their own will be resilient enough to withstand future natural disasters and prevent another large-scale blackout.

Here are some things to think about as this bill moves forward:

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First off, it is important to understand the huge potential for renewable energy in Puerto Rico. Solar energy is the biggest form of renewable energy that has received the most attention on the island post-Hurricane Maria. Located in a consistently warm and sunny location, Puerto Rico receives a lot of solar radiation from the sun year-round, which could power a significant amount of the island if properly utilized. During our meeting with Marvel Architects, Jan Curet-Alvarado, an architectural designer for the firm, talked to our group about their current solar installation projects and the areas of the island with the most solar radiation potential for energy production. The Southern coast of Puerto Rico alone could sustain a significant portion of the island if solar panels were installed in the area. However, the main obstacle with this option is to ensure that a large-scale solar project would not interfere with other land-intensive industries like agriculture or tourism in the same area.

In addition to developing more large-scale solar projects, Jan also outlined the huge potential for rooftop solar, which could avoid land-use conflicts all together. At Marvel Architects, they are receiving more and more requests for rooftop solar installations, especially among businesses that use a lot of energy on a day-to-day basis. Commonly found with larger business buildings like grocery stores or malls, the rooftop space is huge for solar panels, so targeting the private sector to adopt solar power could be an effective way to move Puerto Rico toward 100 percent renewable energy.

Current hydropower plant in Utuado

Current hydropower plant in Utuado

In addition to solar energy, there is also a sizable amount of hydroelectric power potential on the island that could provide a renewable source of energy for the Puerto Rico. While hydropower would not have the consistency of solar power to be utilized across all of Puerto Rico since water sources are scattered, it could still benefit specific communities on the island near these water sources. In Utuado, there is already a hydroelectric dam in place, but the infrastructure is unkempt and outdated. C. P. Smith of La Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de las montañas met with our group in Utuado to talk about the work he has been doing to scale-up that hydroelectric power plant to provide sustainable energy to the community. According to him, if the current plant were to be utilized to its full potential, it could significantly increase its capacity and add 48 MW to the main island grid. This would be enough energy to power most of Ponce, which has a population of almost 150,000 people.

Additionally, C. P.’s project would be able to lower residential electricity costs by 61% to 20 cents per kWh and increase the economic productivity in Utuado. Extending outside of Utuado, the hydropower plant could also have the capacity to provide power to the municipalities of Jayuya and Adjuntas, which would lower the prices of energy generation in those areas as well and attract industry back to the rural areas. Congruently, there are other small sites across Puerto Rico where hydroelectric power could also be implemented, which could provide even more energy generation and economic benefits and move the island even closer to phasing out fossil fuels completely.

Lastly, wind is another form of renewable energy that was adopted in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria. While many wind farms have been built on farming fields and near shorelines to most effectively utilize the wind available on the island, many of the turbines were severely damaged by the intense winds during the hurricane. Our group did not spend much time focusing on energy from wind, but I do think that given the infrastructure already in place, there is a place for wind as long as utilities are able to upkeep and repair the turbines quickly in the event of another hurricane to ensure reliable energy for residents in the area.

The incorporation of all three forms of renewable energy presented above is a key component to getting Puerto Rico to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. As discussed in detail in a previous blog post on the Microgrid Lab at UPRM, microgrids could be an effective way to combine multiple forms of renewable energy into a single microgrid system to provide individual communities across the island with reliable energy. Not only would this help Puerto Rico as a whole reach 100 percent renewable energy, but the implementation of microgrids would also give residents more security in the event of another island-wide blackout. The ability for microgrids to disconnect from the main grid would allow communities to sustain themselves while the main grid is being repaired and ensure the safety of all residents.

While the potential for renewables in Puerto Rico is high, especially when implemented into microgrids to increase their reliability, there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome for the 100 percent renewable energy bill to pass. Listed below I have a few common questions that I have yet to answer, but start to move us toward answering the question of the feasibility of completely phasing out fossil fuels in Puerto Rico.

One of the bigger questions raised focuses on the financial costs of scaling-up renewable energy infrastructure on the island to be able to meet such an ambitious goal. Government funding would need to play a big role in this endeavor, and it is hard to say whether or not the political will is there to support such a proposal. This is a question that I have not yet been able to answer, but poses an interesting conflict that will be seen in other contexts as more nations around the world shift their energy systems away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.

A couple other smaller questions to take into consideration are whether or not wind turbines will be able to withstand the impacts of future hurricanes, and whether or not diesel fuel will be needed to feed generators to provide electricity in the event of another energy emergency. The issue with wind turbines has already been laid out above, but the concern for their reliability is valid given the grim state of some of the wind farms on the island post-Hurricane Maria. While we did not spend any time looking at wind power during our stay in Puerto Rico, this is an interesting question to pose and could play a crucial role in determining the feasibility of getting the island to 100 percent renewable energy.

In regard to the continued dependence on diesel fuel, this is also a tough question to answer as renewables are not scaled-up quite enough to know whether they would be enough in the case of an energy emergency, or if diesel powered generators would still be necessary immediately after a black-out event. However, since solar power can be obtained and stored in a battery any time the sun is out, there is a lot of potential for it to be a reliable source of back-up energy in the event of a black-out. Again, an interesting question that needs further research to be answered accurately, but could also provide valuable insights into the broader question of the feasibility of 100 percent renewable energy for Puerto Rico.




References

McKenna, P. (2018, November 23). Puerto Rico Considers 100% Renewable Energy, But

            Natural Gas May Come First. Inside Climate News. Retrieved from https://insideclimate

            news.org/news/02112018/puerto-rico-100-percent-renewable-energy-bill-natural-gas-

            privatization-hurricane-electric-grid-recovery