Resilient Rebuilding in Puerto Rico

Reality check.

Two of the largest hurricanes in recorded history hit Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other Caribbean islands within ten days of each other.

The cause is undeniable. The devastation almost indescribable, and the opportunity to rebuild a green, renewable more resilient electric grid has never been called for more urgently.

The cause is that we pump way too much carbon into the atmosphere. And the carbon we pump into the atmosphere is heating up the earth. The solution is to redesign our living so we are drawing down more carbon every day out of the atmosphere than we are pumping into it.

Migrating from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is a big part of the solution.

And rebuilding Puerto Rico’s devastated electric grid is the doorway to how we get there.

Hang with me here.

The humanitarian crisis unfolding among our American neighbors in Puerto Rico will require a higher level of engagement and investment than FEMA is currently putting forth. Our fellow citizens there are facing critical safety, survival, and security concerns throughout the island.

Food, fuel, water, and medical care are urgently needed now and it’s not getting there fast enough. Clearly, the lagging relief effort is our most immediate concern.

But how—as a compassionate and thinking people—do we prevent this from being an annual humanitarian crisis?

Is it enough to rebuild the same old grid, or is something more required?

To get the right answers, we must ask the right questions. And those questions have to do with how we rebuild.

Americans know a thing or two about resilience.

Resiliency means more than just picking yourself and your neighbor up off of the mat. It means adapting and changing in light of new realities. We rebuilt our cities differently—stronger, better, more resilient—after the great fires that destroyed Chicago and Baltimore in the early 1900’s. We learned to farm and irrigate our land differently after the dust bowls that devastated America’s heartland in the late twenties.

Today, we must learn from the mega-hurricane disasters brought about by our global warming.

This means changing the way we feed our people, fuel our economies, and heal our planet as we face the realities of climate change. It means rebuilding an electric grid in Puerto Rico that will be, at once, more renewable and more resilient.

What if we were to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid to make it BOTH 100 percent renewable, and far more resilient to the mega hurricanes of our foreseeable future? And what if that new 21st-century power system was also less expensive to operate and provided lower costs for customers?

Consider these facts:

  1. At 23 cents per kWh, the price paid by Puerto Ricans today for electricity is twice what is paid for electricity on the mainland of the United States.
  2. Renewable energy resources are abundant in Puerto Rico. Solar resources across the Caribbean are greater than in Hawaii, California, Texas, and Spain; wind resources are competitive with resources in the leading wind states of Texas and California. And today, those kilowatts of on-shore wind can be produced competitively at 6–9 cents per kWh; while solar can be produced at 10–13 cents per kWh.
  3. The cost of wind, solar, and energy storage has been declining dramatically as battery storage technology continues to improve.

But until the hurricanes wiped out our neighbors in Puerto Rico, all we read about was Puerto Rico’s debt. Less publicized is the fact that $8 billion of Puerto Rico’s $74 billion of indebtedness actually derives from PREPA—the government-run utility.

The truth is America’s largest territory is electrified by a dirty, expensive, rickety, and terribly inefficient power system. A power system whose primary fuel for its 40-year-old fleet of generators is heavy fuel oil and diesel—the most expensive and polluting petroleum products on the planet. A power system whose antiquated grid wastes 14 percent of the electricity it produces while burning the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

And every imported barrel that the people of Puerto Rico buy are dollars that leave the island, that no longer circulate, that are no longer available to lift Puerto Rico’s economy.

Now is the opportunity to restructure. Now is the time to realign profit motives to renewables and resiliency. Now is the time to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid with a human purpose.

As Chris Burgess, director of projects for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Islands Energy Program, explains: “the new age utility is no longer the sole monopoly producer of energy but rather the facilitator of a dynamic grid—a grid where we all participate. We all consume. Now—thanks to declining solar and wind costs—we can all produce.”

A full transition to renewable energy and microgrid resiliency in Puerto Rico will produce thousands of new jobs in engineering, construction, maintenance, and operations.

A new grid designed for redundancy and resiliency with distributed generation (generation in various places spread across the island’s grid: rooftop solar, solar parking lots, solar farms, solar on brown fields, on-shore wind, off-shore wind, and the latest technology for storage capacity) is more reliable and more resilient to extreme weather and monster hurricanes.

Other countries like Denmark, Costa Rica, and Ecuador have demonstrated the capacity to go to 100 percent renewables while making their countries more secure and prosperous at the same time. Other islands like Ta’u in American Samoa, Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles, and Kaua’i in the Hawaiian chain have all shown the capacity to thrive on renewables. So too, can Puerto Rico.

NGO’s like Rocky Mountain Institute and others have been actively partnering with island states like Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, and Montserrat to transition from expensive and volatile imported fuel oil to domestic renewable energy with accelerated success.

The island State of Hawaii has declared a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. And the economics are already accelerating the speed of progress to reach that goal. The Hawaiian island of Kaua’i has transformed its energy mix from 90 percent oil fired to 40 percent renewable (with over 90 percent solar and battery during the mid-day peak) in just a few short years.

The bottom line is this.

What has been destroyed needs to be rebuilt. Why not build it in a way that allows Puerto Rico to generate its own electricity in ways that are more resilient to next year’s hurricanes, better for its own economy, and less expense for its consumers and businesses?

There are some things beyond our control, but regulatory policies are not. Here are a few that need to be changed if we are to create a safer, more reliable, and more prosperous energy future in Puerto Rico.

  • Realigning the profit motive from pure consumption of kilowatt-hours to paying for the maintenance of a resilient and dynamic grid.
  • Creating a predictable and guaranteed pathway for feed-in tariffs and mutually beneficial utility and customer incentives to get more renewables on the grid quickly.
  • Building out the smaller generation and storage capacities of microgrid nodes like universities, business parks, hotels, and critical infrastructure like hospitals, emergency shelters, drinking water systems, telecom, airport and seaport facilities, and police and fire facilities.
  • Taking out PREPAs indebtedness so Puerto Rico can build the foundation of its new economy that will allow the island to pay off its debts by propelling its economy into a more prosperous, lower-cost energy future.

These are all human constructs, human choices, and human policy choices.

The engineering know-how is here. The urgency of this new normal weather threat is here. Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is here and it has its roots in overpriced, fossil-fueled electricity.

The time is right to make Puerto Rico a proof positive of what can achieved if we embrace the opportunity of climate change to create jobs and improve the well-being and prosperity of our people.

We human beings make sense of things from stories close to home. Scale can confound us. When the scale is too large, it can short-circuit the imagination. It can throw the art of the possible for a loop. But what has happened to Puerto Rico could also be a turning point. A proof point. An opportunity to imagine and rebuild at a scale that all can see and understand.

Yes, this is about alleviating the suffering of our American neighbors in Puerto Rico right now.

But it also about how the United States of America protects our people in the future from the very real present danger posed by climate change.

We have the power to change and adapt.

As Americans, we have proven time and again that adaptation and change are our great strength.

It is time to call into service the American innovation and technology that already exists.

It is time to call forward the goodness within us in rebuilding Puerto Rico.

Small things done well make bigger things possible.

We might just learn something by doing what is right and needed.

We might just remember we are capable of accomplishing great things.

 Martin O’Malley is the former governor of Maryland. He has lead widespread sustainability initiatives, from massive cleanup efforts in the Chesapeake Bay to strong advocacy for a 100 percent national renewable energy mandate by 2030.

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