A Locally Led Move Toward Microgrids in Puerto Rico

The start of this week, September 23, marks the average peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. After the devastating landfall of Hurricane Dorian in the northern Bahamas two weeks ago, the Caribbean community quickly moved to offer support. Relief began mobilizing out of New Providence and Andros Islands, which were initially hampered by the slow-moving storm. The storm’s high winds, storm surge, and prolonged duration of rain and flooding caused immense destruction and tragedy. Leaders in the Bahamas and international supporters are currently focusing on search and rescue, and immediate relief to the islands. So far, 45 bodies have been recovered, and the Red Cross estimates almost half of the islands’ buildings were severely damaged or destroyed. Our hearts are with the people of the Bahamas, and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) stands with them in this time of tragedy.

In recent years, the threat from hurricanes has increased. The 2018 hurricane season marked the first time since 2008 that four named storms existed at the same time in the Atlantic Basin. The 2017 hurricane season was the costliest on record and the deadliest since 2005. In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria alone caused thousands of deaths and widespread devastation in Dominica, Anguilla, Barbuda, Cuba, the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southern Bahamas. According to the National Hurricane Center, that September’s accumulated cyclone energy (a measure of the total wind energy in tropical storms) was 3.5 times the average in the past thirty years. The total damage of that season overwhelmed the region’s resources and ability to respond to the aggregate damage and simultaneous emergencies. On August 28, Puerto Rico experienced a narrow brush with Hurricane Dorian, and residents remain fearful of further damage to a still fragile power grid.

When working to restore the region’s electricity grids to repower essential services needed for a coordinated emergency response, island leaders experienced prolonged disruptions and shortages of lines, people, trucks, helicopters, transformers, poles, and other required equipment. With the widespread emergency and unprecedented devastation from a Category 5 hurricane impact, Dominica and Puerto Rico faced a months-long power outage. Without power available to critical facilities—including hospitals, fire and rescue, and other community facilities—more lives were lost as an indirect result of the outage. It is not a matter of if, but when, another hurricane will impact Puerto Rico. A rapid transition to more resilient forms of power can help to minimize the impact.

Despite a slow recovery, changes in leadership, and further austerity, communities across Puerto Rico continue to persist with a spirit of unification and strength, working together and with government and nongovernmental organizations to build resilient, renewable energy systems for their communities. Working with civil society and other stakeholders across Puerto Rico, RMI has learned much about the process of island energy transitions, how critical facilities can be further strengthened, the importance of bottom-up leadership, and the need for further existing efforts toward a resilient electrical grid.

For years, well before Hurricanes Irma and Maria, citizens of Puerto Rico have demanded a transformation of the island’s electricity system, from both the top and the bottom, toward a future that is local, resilient, reliable, and increasingly clean. Our team at RMI, along with close partners on-island—including Resilient Power Puerto Rico, Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico, the Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy, and Save the Children—have supported the pursuit of this energy vision. From policy changes (Act 17 of 2019, which calls for an efficient and market-led shift toward 100 percent renewable energy) to mostly civil society-led energy projects (more than 300 completed energy projects for communities and critical facilities), Puerto Rico has begun a dynamic and inclusive energy transition.

Much of that transition involves the development of microgrids, which in the case of projects in Puerto Rico, often involve solar photovoltaic with battery storage to generate and store power on-site. These renewable microgrid systems are able to isolate from the grid, so the lights can stay on when the central grid is down. Though the federal government has provided technical and financial support to such efforts, philanthropy, nonprofits, and local leaders in Puerto Rico have taken the first steps. For instance, the energy regulator (PREB, the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau) has released the world’s first comprehensive microgrid regulations. The same organization has increased its oversight of the utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), that has since proposed a new integrated resource plan featuring more solar and storage. Furthermore, recent drafts of regulations for energy efficiency and utility performance incentives should continue to push the modernization of the grid. Despite these efforts, the growth of locally led projects, including the development of critical facility, community, and municipal-level microgrids, will ensure an energy transition that is participatory and creates true energy independence.

Yet today, the grid remains vulnerable. One year after Hurricane Maria, the CEO of PREPA, José Ortiz, called the grid “weaker than it was before,” despite the $3.2 billion in federal rebuilding assistance. In the mountainous center of the island, power outages continue to plague communities still recovering from the storm. Many community buildings and the area’s infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, health facilities, fire stations, communications towers, are in these remote areas, and in many cases remain damaged or vulnerable. Rebuilding the grid to support not only the main urban areas such as San Juan, Ponce, and Mayagüez—but to better incorporate local and clean solutions in Orocovis, Villalba, Utuado, and many more—will help improve the grid’s performance and costs during normal operations, and secure power to critical facilities in any future disruption. That shift can also promote energy equity, foster local ownership, and avoid expensive and polluting investments in fossil fuels.

While hundreds of renewable microgrids have already been installed at critical facilities in Puerto Rico, this effort must continue to scale to meet the size and scale of the total opportunity. To make this shift, a few essential items need to be in place. Technical specifications, to ensure safe and reliable interaction with the grid, must be created with the participation of the utility and many other technical experts. Open, competitive, and fair procurement of the services and equipment for microgrid projects will keep costs down and ensure the competitive bids in Puerto Rico (and from elsewhere) will win. New financial structures, including blended finance—combining grants and varying types of debt—will help grow the market to many more communities, supplement the existing philanthropic and public monies, and ensure equitable access. And lastly—to address the long-term sustainability and performance of these systems—strong local entities must support long-term operations and maintenance of the microgrid systems.

RMI, along with Resilient Power Puerto Rico and Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico, and with the support of The Rockefeller Foundation, will be working to assess the growing opportunity for resilient, distributed microgrids in Puerto Rico. We will advance select projects and create pathways for broader adoption of clean energy microgrids for critical facilities. We welcome input from the many actors working in Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean to advance the energy transition, and we will continue to engage with diverse partners throughout this work. While the threat of the current and future hurricane seasons weighs heavily on our hearts and minds, RMI and our local partners are prepared to work as part of the broader community to advance a resilient, locally led, and clean energy future.

For further information—contact Roy Torbert at rtorbert@rmi.org