Downed power lines
Trees and power lines downed by Hurricane Maria. (Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt.Michelle Y. Alvarez-Rea)

Some 90 percent of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory for well over a century, was still without power approaching a month after hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean island. Ninety percent.

The island’s electricity infrastructure was already in bad shape before Hurricane Maria hit on September 20, but in its wake the island’s 3.4 million residents lost all power. As the island struggles forward, one issue to be considered involves how best to rebuild its severely damaged infrastructure – particularly its electrical system.

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Even as it faces an immediate and devastating humanitarian crisis, an emerging viewpoint is that the island should think twice before restoring its electrical system as it’s existed in the past … powered with imported fossil fuels, largely centralized, frequently unreliable, and in dire financial straits. Instead, this reasoning goes, Puerto Rico should plan for more resilient, distributed infrastructure – resilient to the inherent economic vulnerabilities of island living, and resilient also to the punishing consequences of climate change.

One idea: A high-tech solar grid

Tesla, Inc. CEO Elon Musk on October 4 exchanged Twitter messages with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello to float the idea of building a high-tech solar grid on the island. Drawing on the resources of another of his start-ups, SolarCity, Musk brings direct experience to the table. He’s worked on a similar project on the island of Ta-au in American Samoa, on a solar project on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and on other installations elsewhere abroad.

The idea basically involves building a distributed grid populated by solar panels, and not relying on one or a handful of large power plants. The panels can feed into large batteries that can be linked together into self-contained “microgrids”.

Tesla already has sent hundreds of its Powerwall battery systems to Puerto Rico, Investors Business Daily reported on October 6. Meanwhile, Sonnen GmbH, a German provider of energy-storage systems, began deliveries to Puerto Rico in late September as part of a plan to install microgrids serving 15 emergency relief centers.

Lighting up Puerto Rico ‘much quicker’

Wind, solar, and even kinetic energy from the ocean are all abundantly available in a place like Puerto Rico. And solar power, combined with adequate electricity storage systems, strikes many as a good place to start.

As far as building a distributed grid, Rossello seemed gung-ho in a recent Time magazine story. “We can start dividing Puerto Rico into different regions … and then start developing microgrids,” he said. “That’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s certainly going to start lighting up Puerto Rico much quicker.”

Puerto Rican leaders hadn’t been particularly enthusiastic in the past about embracing renewable sources of energy, choosing instead to invest heavily on a liquefied natural gas terminal, Time reported.

Among those arguing for a more climate-resilient Caribbean – and a more resilient continental United States, for that matter – is Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. In a column in the Huffington Post on September 25, Cohen wrote that despite the many threats and challenges now facing the U.S., the destructive consequences of climate change cannot be ignored.

“While I am not minimizing threats posed by terrorists and crazy people with missiles, I think it is also time to address the threats posed by extreme weather events as well,” Cohen wrote. “Climate change is making extreme weather events more severe, and … we need more money to solidify, modernize, and reinforce our infrastructure.”

Cohen also supports expansion of decentralized microgrids and of renewable energy. All this takes investment, however, and the United States – let alone economically strapped Puerto Rico – at all levels of government has not kept pace with the need to improve roads, bridges and airports, electrical grids, power plants, and other infrastructure.

By far, the largest proportion of spending on infrastructure for transportation, drinking water, and wastewater treatment is done by federal, state, and local governments. In 2014 in the U.S., that amounted to $416 billion, or 2.4 percent of the GDP. That percentage has been essentially stable for the past 30 years, Cohen says.

China, meanwhile, spends about 8.8 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, India about 5.1 percent, and Japan about 3.5 percent. Cohen points out that the U.S. spends much more capital on the military (3.4 percent of GDP) than on domestic infrastructure.

Cohen is an advocate for a national trust fund to rebuild homes and other infrastructure after disasters, and to view the rebuilding effort as a national security issue. He’s not alone.

Focused more sharply on the Caribbean, Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson, who lives on an island in the British Virgin Islands, has called for a “Disaster Recovery Marshall Plan” by the British government and other public and private entities to help rebuild the BVI and other hard-hit parts of the Caribbean. He’s mobilized his own company to get involved.

A ‘collapsible’ electric grid?

It’s uncertain how the federal government in the U.S. will continue to respond to the slow-moving disaster in the Caribbean. Resources have been pouring in, but getting them distributed to where they’re most needed has been agonizingly slow. And some critics contend the Trump administration has appeared more concerned with “optics” than with real results.

Some federal officials have hinted at innovative solutions for recovery in the Caribbean. On September 26, the Trump administration nominee to head the Energy Department’s electricity office, Bruce Walker, told a Senate committee about the possibility of deploying a “collapsible” electric grid system that could be taken down before future hurricanes and restored quickly after. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, at that same hearing, testified about the potential of “small modular nuclear reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 (military cargo) aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up and plug it in.”

But it’s clear that these types of nuclear reactors are not ready for prime time, and probably won’t be until the mid-2020s.

‘Lights out’ on earlier EPA ideas for islands’ vulnerabilities

Meanwhile, the vulnerabilities of island communities to climate change have been on the radar screen of the federal government for years. The Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama had summarized the energy sector vulnerabilities that both Hawaii and Puerto Rico face as the global climate continues to change. It even outlined some broad steps both islands could take:

  • To protect fuel transport and storage: build seawalls or natural buffer zones, harden infrastructure to resist inundation, replace equipment with submersible or floating infrastructure, relocate roads;
  • To protect electricity generation: harden assets at the coast; increase, diversify and distribute capacity;
  • To protect electric grids: Strengthen tower and substation designs, underground transmission and distribution lines in select locations;
  • To better manage demand: Increase capacity overall, pursue measures to improve energy efficiency and better manage loads.

In an August 2016, EPA focused more sharply on the climate change impacts that Puerto Rico is expected to face in coming years. They include one to three feet of sea-level rise over the next century, more intense tropical storms and hurricanes, and infrastructure vulnerable to more frequent flooding and increased wind speeds.

None of that is on the EPA website as it exists today. The fact sheet has been scrubbed from the site as part of the administration’s reshaping of its views on communicating on climate change impacts.

With federal agencies turning the lights out on the established science-based evidence on climate change, and with an uncertain and economically stressed path toward recovery in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico appears likely to face more tropical nights in the dark.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...