A Local First Approach to Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Electricity System — Episode 77 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 23 May 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

How can an island rebuild its electric grid in a way that boosts the local economy?

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria caused a devastating and historic blackout in Puerto Rico. The months of efforts to reconnect customers were hampered by the public utility’s bankruptcy, and control of the island’s financials by a federal oversight board. Marcel Castro Sitiriche, Professor of electrical engineering and Co-director of Cohemis at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, joined me in April 2019, to discuss the limits of the island’s resilience, and what it can do to rebuild better for everyone.

A transcript and summary of the reproduced episode follow.

John Farrell: How can an island rebuilt its electric grid in a way that revives the local economy? Marcel Castro Sitiriche is the Co-director of Cohemis at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez. Back in September 2017, his home of Puerto Rico suffered a historic blackout but struck by Hurricane Maria in part due to years of mismanagement by the local electric utility. He’s developed a unique perspective on how to address Puerto Rico’s vulnerability to hurricanes and how to build a more resilient and renewable electricity system.I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules. A podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.Welcome Marcel.
Marcel Castro Sitiriche: Thank you for having me here.
John Farrell: I think most people are familiar because it was such a big news story at the time that the power was out for a long time on put her to Rico after Hurricane Maria struck in September, 2017. Uh, I was hoping that you could start us off by helping people understand a few reasons that it took nearly a year to reconnect power to the last customer when the same hurricane also hit Florida. But power was restored much more quickly.
Marcel Castro Sitiriche: It is a very important question and something that I have looked at a experiencing a part of it, but of the blackout, I would cover the power in my house 90 days after Hurricane Maria. But the resources are, are many. But there is one a particular one, eh, that affects — the system is centralized — and the, The system in other places are also centralized but the centralized nature in Puerto Rico plays a major role in terms of recovering back. Now there a other reasons white too much longer than, than other places. For example, even before he came muddy, I’m a prep, I was already diminished by austerity measures so that where there were less things in stock, two to replace it pulls on materials and also there was less personnel a working with PREPA as compared to 20 years ago when when George’s impact us. Another important thing is that Mario was very strong, Eh, when he goes to Florida was it was not as strong as we need to hit Puerto Rico and, and just looking at the, the average wind speed over land that the impact lab a estimated it throughout the whole, put the recall a land area only five in storms are more intense than Maria.

And they were all in the Pacific Ocean. That is from the 1950s until now. So when we look at, at at is was very strong hurricane. Also the devastation due to trees falling and landslides. There were thousands of landslides all across Puerto Rico. But particularly in the center of the island where we cover we efforts, it took longer to get and restoration to eh months, almost a year. The Nation too, that we had a slow start. Government didn’t call for mutual aid, eh, for more than a month. It took six weeks, eh, for, for the government to, to call on mutual aid assistance. And that hampered recovery efforts in the beginning. The official version is that the private companies could jump in without eh, eh, matching or, or, or putting some money up front from the Puerto Rico government side, eh, but there might be other issues involved. For example, the idea to make PREPA private.

And I think everybody was aware that whoever restore your power is going to have a great impact on your mentality, on, on your perception of, of who help you record power. He is a power public power utility in the US or is it a private utility? And I think that played a role in that decision, but the, I’m speculating about that, but it’s possible, the other thing is that we are a remote island, so the support crews could not drive from other states to help Puerto Rico. So they had to take a, Eh, come by boat and that takes longer. It’s more expensive. Um, so that’s another thing that they limited the, the quick response or sometimes, Eh, the, Eh, the states get. And finally the, the rough terrain that are mountain areas are really hard to get because PREPA workers were less so the people coming from places like Florida, they don’t have experience with this Eh, mountain terrains that you can find in [names of areas on the Island] and that is something that also I think play a major role in day, what I call is the longest blackouts ever in the world that I have never heard of a power outage that lasted 329 days.

John Farrell: You know that leads me to one of the questions that I had about something that you’re looking at which is kind of a novel perspective on how we might approach the solution. So there’s been lots of talk. You know you mentioned about privatizing the utility PREPA that had been happening even before the hurricane but is now a big discussion there’s a lot of conversation about micro grids and I’ll ask you a little bit later about some new rules that the island’s energy bureau has come up with for these miniature grids. But you’ve created a pretty interesting document looking at the problem by focusing on the hours of lost electricity. So you just mentioned it was the longest blackout every. Tell me a little bit more about what you’ve been trying to track in terms of how this blackout impacted and then how that’s been allowing you to focus on approaching this solving this problem in a different way.
Marcel Castro Sitiriche: Actually the first time I read about the customer hours of lost electricity service was a report by Rudding Group that they mentioned that already by October and so a little bit more than a month after Hurricane Maria they already estimated that Hurricane Maria created the largest blackout in U.S history. So there’s a difference between the biggest and the largest with the longest. You can have a very long blackout for a few people and that doesn’t make it the biggest. So the good thing of using the customer hours of lost electricity service is that you take into consideration massive blackouts that sometimes leaves millions of people without power for a few hours. But also you can compare that with maybe a smaller like amount of people or customers losing power but for extended periods of time. So when we look at the customer’s hours of lost electricity service which I call choles, to make it short. Hurricane Maria was already above 1 million 200 CHOLES [Consumer Hours of Loss Electric Services] on October 2018. And by April, the Rudding Group reported that it was already the second largest blackout in the world. Only Typhoon Hayan in the Philippines had more than 6000 CHOLES.

But we have to keep in mind that the Philippines has a population of 100 million people as compared to the less than 4 million people in Puerto Rico. So then I started looking at how this can be used to make better decisions and also now how to best distribute the recovery funds that we hope at some point get to the people that need it the most. And that brings some interesting numbers. For example, I divided the groups of customers in Puerto Rico in three and the last 200,000 customers that represented 14% of the total of the customer of PREPA contributed about a third of the total CHOLES which are about 3,000. In my estimate I have a conservative estimate of 3,000 but other estimates but it more like 3,000 400 million CHOLES. I have about 3,000 million and so it is a lot. I estimated 928,000 million CHOLES for only those 200,000 customers that spent more than five months without electricity. Now, when we think of what should we do and how much it will cost to fix that vulnerability we should keep in mind that when Hurricane George the estimated total number of customer’s hours of lost electricity services about 1,000 million. So it’s very close for the whole Hurricane George that devastated Puerto Rico in 1998 is very close to the last 200,000 families that the last one that recovered power after Hurricane Maria. And to put that in context with other events. With Sandy there were 775 million CHOLES. With Jugo in 1989 that’s the first one I remember. Puerto Rico it was about 700 million CHOLES and with Katrina for example it was 681 million CHOLES. So when we put that in context I think the numbers are really mind blowing and we need to really think how to best invest and cover the vulnerability of these last 200,000 families but also all Puerto Rico.

John Farrell: And so what you have put together is a suggestion that we focus on in terms of addressing those families that we look at solar and battery installations for those folks as a way to both distributing renewable energy systems as a way to use recover dollars that will focus on the folks that are hardest to reach in the long run who suffered the most from the hurricane and also can be deployed relatively quickly which is important because another hurricane season is coming in just a few months and there’s no way of knowing whether or not there’s another Maria in store for Puerto Rico.
Marcel Castro Sitiriche: Exactly. I think we have an opportunity, um, the bullying with opportunities I is that they are that right? So importunity could be, eh, taking advantage of or it can become a lost opportunity. And now we have the opportunity to a use the recovery funds that should come to help have more receiving communities. Eh, I’m focusing on the area of energy, but he showed up like two other things too, in having water and food and shelter. But, but in terms of energy, we can corporate that vulnerability with technology that is also going to support a more sustainable community in the longterm because then you’re going to have a, um, a local, a locally generated energy, uh, a competitive price, competitive costs that is much more receding in the case of West. From here you can combine these is important because it could give us a window into the future what, what would be needed in other places in the United States afterward we have two specific issues to address that are particular Puerto Rico on and that is the vulnerability to hurricanes and also the high cost of electricity from the grid.

Now, there are projections. For example, HOMER Energy and Rocky Mountain Institute did a work on grid defection, the economics of grid defection and they predicted that in a couple of decades, there are many cities that are going to be challenged or the utility model is going to be challenged in those cities by decreasing price of solar with storage. Now, that already happened in Hawaii and is happening now in Puerto Rico. If we do things right in Puerto Rico, it could serve as a model for other cities to follow, especially when solar with batteries become a real challenge to the grid. We don’t need to make it all cutthroat competition. We should try to collaborate and make the transition to what makes more sense for the customers and for the families.

John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break, when we return, we’ll discuss a bill being described as Puerto Rico’s Green New Deal, and how the island has already created more local accountability and policies to enable local energy production.
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Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.

John Farrell: I also wanted to talk about as well though, so there have been some kind of policy reform efforts and there are two that I’m interested in getting your thoughts on. One is this energy reform law 1121 that some folks are called the Puerto Rican Green New Deal. It includes a provision for 100% renewable energy and I think you alluded to this earlier but that it’s out several decades in the future. So I’m curious, number one about how that law might help now in the short term with this issues of resiliency and clean energy and then the second one is that in the last five years the islands’ government has established an energy bureau charged with overseeing PREPA and it seems in this conversation about making sure the utilities accountable, that is perhaps the most successful thing already that has already done things to help hold the utility accountable and most recently released some ruled for micro grids, which are small grids that can be run by a community that can either operate independently or they can operate in connection with the larger grid and it seems to me that both this new law and these regulations from the energy bureau that is overseeing the utility could offer some near term opportunities. And I’m curious what your perspective is on this.
Marcel Castro Sitiriche: Yeah, these are two good questions waiting for, for the signature of the government, I understand. Um, it has some good, good things because it establishes the mandate for a hundred percent renewable even though I think it a be far in 2050, um, on also eat intense to facilitate the process to other more solar power and renewables in general. So there are some positive aspects into into these. I am disappointed though that uh, the short action that is needed for what I have a called the 200,000 families that spend more than five months without power is, is not included in this bill. And that is something that should be a, the part of the energy it public policy. Oh, also these bill leaves the door open for a potential large investment in natural gas infrastructure as say transition to 200% is solar. And that, that is also worrisome because we, we might not do the best investments if we go too much into build new gas infrastructure.

We really trying to go 100% solar in few decades when this infrastructure, my another 50, 60 years on. Also while they’re, there hasn’t been more talk about Eh, utility scale solar on utility scale storage. I don’t see enough prioritization of rooftop solar. The that also gets reflected in the IRP, by PREPA. That includes a good amount of utility solar systems but not the the rooftop solar. Again, and this is where we need to start. We need to start with the rooftops, I call it the bottom-up-grid approach. We need to build a new power grid from the bottom starting in the rooftops of the houses and business and industry. Then look at what we can do at community level. For example, for houses, maybe there’s some community centers that that should be empowered with these kind of systems and a community level. So we could be microgrids that reinforce what already exist in maybe many houses, but maybe not all of them can have a solar system for infrastructure problems or shading or things like that and a microwave can can help with that.

And if you go up the bottom of grid, maybe by the time you get to look at mini grids, if you already have a strong system that my mini grid might not make economic sense, the kind of investment needed. If you already have so many rooftop systems and also micro grids. One problem with, with this approach is that the big companies that installed big system, major projects, like, like, eh, 1 billion and a half generates, or if they want to do make money a with solar rooftop, then you need to have hundreds of thousands of small projects. And that’s, eh, not as good for this kind of big companies. However, it is good for a small companies in Puerto Rico that do this kind of installations. Um, so I see as a win win, but it could create a problem with, with those interests, um, about the microgrids — eh development in the island and there is a new rules and now I believe that the, the interconnection rules, there is a draft released last month, so it’s on the reviews.

So that’s moving forward and I think that’s great. Eh, it’s, it’s, there’s, these are the steps in the, in the right direction and we need to enable communities to be able to establish microgrids and maybe also find different ways to establish microgrids. Eh. However, again, I think that’s not the place to start, when to start with the rooftops that exist now and that can be done now without further a regulations or rules and we need to find a way that when we add rooftop solar with batteries in thousands, in hundreds of thousands of houses, that it, those resources could be then use when we build the micro grid at that level. And perhaps one of the things that I want to research the next couple of years is how to use the solar rooftop with batteries as a precursor of the microgrid and not make it a competition between, well, if if this community, they have solar rooftop and this one have microwave, not how can we a massively deploy solar rooftop of system with batteries and then connect them in the microgrid way to make the system more robust.

Because in the end what we want to do is keep the lights on and from there on then we are talking about getting to the future of a prosumer transactive energy and peer-to-peer energy that could be tested in Puerto Rico. If we have this massive level of distributed, a capacity for generation or for storage. So again, this could be a good opportunity to cover a vulnerability in that is very much needed in the rural areas of Puerto Rico to leapfrog and go to the next eh grid or, or the next energy system that we should have in other places. But here because of the abundancy of solar, the high cost of power from the grid and the vulnerability to hurricanes could help to do the transition faster. And also considering that we have an aging infrastructure, the freed generation, freed of PREPA is about 30 years. All they’re done than the in the u s so something I say is that it’s like we’re driving a Toyota Corolla from the 1980s this is our fleet.

John Farrell:  Mmmhmm (agreement).
Marcel Castro Sitiriche: But if we’re going to go through a transition that is going to make obsolete all the roads and now all the, all the cars are going to fly, for us to stop driving the little car from the 80s, you know, we’re not going to be losing as much as if we just have a brand new, Chevy that which might be the, the new natural gas infrastructure. So, so I think we are in a good position because we have aging infrastructure to make the transition faster and more direct to, to renewables.
John Farrell: Well, Marcel, I just want to make sure folks know we will have a link to the paper that you’ve put together on CHOLES, on the lost hours of electricity and on this focus on those 200,000 most vulnerable customers. Uh, the microgrid regulations to bill the 100% renewable bill 1121 which is possible will be signed by Governor Rosario. Before we this I also share a, an article that I wrote about a year and a half ago, kind of giving some of that big picture background about the colonial past and present a of Puerto Rico. Um, thank you so much for sharing your vision for how Puerto Rico can recover from Maria and invest in the local communities and in rooftop solar. Uh, really appreciate you taking the time.
Marcel Castro Sitiriche: Well, thank you for the invitation and I hope that this conversation continues because this is, I think a long term fight. It’s always going to be difficult. But I think these energy fight in Puerto Rico is one that we can win and we can win it for the benefit of the people that need it the most.
John Farrell: Absolutely. Well, thank you again. Marcel was a pleasure talking to you and also meeting you in San Juan a couple of weeks ago and uh, I look forward to hearing more about your work in the coming months and years.
Marcel Castro Sitiriche: Thank you. And I look forward to working more with you and maybe some of the members of your audience.
John Farrell: This is John Farrell, director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy initiative. I was speaking with Marcel Castro Sitiriche, Cohemis at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, about the island’s efforts to build a clean energy system that works for everyone.

This podcast is an excerpt of a longer conversation with Marcel for ILSR’s Building Local Power podcast available on our website. Check it out to hear more about Marcel’s particular project, focusing on the most vulnerable residents of Puerto Rico, as well as more about the island’s troubling colonial past and present. On the show page, you’ll also find a transcript, a link to Marcel’s project on CHOLES, the island’s new microgrid regulations, Bill 1121 for 100% renewable energy, and a commentary I published for Greentech Media back in late 2017, summarizing the challenges facing Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

While you’re on our website, you can also find more than 70 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast.

Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Why Did Maria Create Such a Big Toll on Puerto Rico?

Professor Sitiriche had to wait 90 days for power to be restored to his home, but in other places it took much longer: nearly one year in some cases. There were several underlying factors for these delays:

  • The centralization of the electric grid, with the island’s largest power generators in the south connected to the population centers in the north via vulnerable mountain transmission lines. This was particularly challenging for aid workers from mainland utilities, who lacked experience with the rough terrain in the mountainous center of the island, where transmission lines run.
  • The financial straits of the utility, PREPA, including a shortage of replacement parts and a workforce that had been shrinking.
  • The power of the Hurricane. Maria’s average wind speed over the island was higher than all but five storms since 1950. Falling trees and landslides were widespread, especially in remote areas with transmission lines.
  • The island’s government delayed requesting mutual aid from mainland utilities, for almost six weeks. All publicly-owned utilities can request help from each other when in need. This delay may have been because the government has been interested in privatizing the utility.
  • This help from mainland utilities, when it was available, had to come by boat.

Learn more about the underlying colonial history of Puerto Rico and how it also contributed to the slow recovery from Hurricane Maria.

Novel Focus on “Lost Customer Hours of Electricity”

Marcel’s focus has been on “customer hours of lost electricity” or “CHOLES,” a measure that sums up the lost hours of electric service for all customers. It allows for easier comparison of blackout severity than simply the total number of customers initially affected. Within six months, Puerto Rico’s blackout was already the second largest in the world by this measure, only surpassed by the one caused by Typhoon Hyanne in the Philippines, with a population 25 times larger.

In particular, Marcel’s research focuses on the last 200,000 customers to have their power restored. They represent about 5 percent of the island’s population, but suffered from one-third of the total outage hours. These customers live in more remote areas of the island, where it’s harder to restore traditional electricity service.

Marcel suggests this is an opportunity. These communities remain vulnerable because the disaster recovery effort was focused on rebuilding the grid as it was. Now, additional funds will come to the island and more resilient technology––such as distributed solar and battery storage––could provide local energy. Such investments would address vulnerability, since no one can predict when then next Maria will strike the island.

Distributed energy solutions would also lower costs. HOMER Energy and Rocky Mountain Institute did an analysis of grid defection and found several cities where the utility business model will be challenged because customers can get electricity more cheaply from local solar and energy storage. That transition has been happening in Puerto Rico.

A Green New Deal for Puerto Rico?

John asked Marcel to talk about the recently passed energy reform law, 1121, that some are calling the Puerto Rican Green New Deal. It includes a 100% renewable energy commitment by 2050.

While Bill 1121 does have some good supports for renewable energy, it doesn’t address the vulnerability of the 200,000 most customers that were longest without power, suggests Marcel. It also allows for significant investments in gas. Gas infrastructure could last 50 or 60 years, when the island’s renewable target is within just 30 years. Marcel also doesn’t see enough of a focus in the recently passed legislation on rooftop solar, instead of utility-scale renewable energy systems.

“We need to start with the rooftops. I call it the ‘bottom up grid approach.’ We need to build a new power grid starting with the rooftops of the houses and business and industry. Then we need to look at the community level… build microgrids. As you go up the bottom up grid, if you all have a strong system…other systems might not be needed,” explains Sitiriche.

Marcel also sees economic opportunity in this bottom up approach.

“The big companies that install big systems… if they want to make money with solar rooftops, then you need to have hundreds of thousands of small projects. Not as good for the big companies. However, it is good for small companies in Puerto Rico that do these installations,” he says.

The island’s energy bureau, which oversees the public utility, recently adopted another regulation that provides rules for microgrid development –– microgrids are miniature electric grids that can run on their own or be connected to the larger grid.

For more on microgrids, explore our Energy Research Hotspot on Microgrids, including our 2016 report: Mighty Microgrids.

Marcel says these rules are a step in the right direction. However, he says “we need to start with the rooftop” because they can be done without additional regulation. And rooftop solar and batteries could easily be integrated into future microgrids.

“How can we massively deploy rooftop solar systems with batteries and connect them in a microgrid way to make the system more robust?” Sitiriche asks.

This transition––and the focus on local energy first––makes sense for three reasons: high cost of power, vulnerability to hurricanes, and aging power generation infrastructure.

“We’re driving a Toyota Corolla from the 1980s. That’s our fleet. If we’re going through a transition that is going to make obsolete all the roads and all the cars are going to fly,” Sitiriche explains. “[It makes more sense] For us to stop driving the little car from the 1980s…We’re not going to lose as much as if we had a new Chevy (which might be the new gas infrastructure)… We’re in a good position… to make the transition faster and more direct to renewables.”

Additional Resources

This is the 77th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update. Also check out over 70 episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast! Undergraduate intern Eli Crain assisted with editing the audio for this episode.

Featured Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Preston Chasteen

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John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.