Repair or Renovate? Puerto Rico Faces Stark Power Grid Options

Read the full story in Scientific American.

It has been 68 days since Hurricane Irma took down much of Puerto Rico’s aging power grid and 54 days since Hurricane Maria finished the job, leaving nearly all 3.4 million residents without electricity. The island’s state-owned utility company, the U.S. government and workers on loan from other utilities are installing new poles, lines and power distribution circuits to replace those blown away by the storms. Despite the progress that has been made, more than half of Puerto Rico continues to soldier on without some of modern life’s bare necessities—including lights, refrigeration, air-conditioning and access to computer networks. Without significant improvements to create a more resilient grid, however, many are questioning how Puerto Rico can avoid a similar catastrophe the next time a major storm hits.

The consensus among the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others involved in the current restoration project is that Puerto Rico is—and has been for a long time—in desperate need of a power grid makeover. Last Wednesday, during a press conference, Ricardo Ramos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), indicated the utility has created a “transformation plan” to improve service. Within 24 hours of the press conference a transmission line supposedly repaired a few days earlier failed, plunging San Juan and several other cities back into darkness until power could once again be restored in the following days.

Such is the nature of power in Puerto Rico, as PREPA struggles to keep its fragile electrical grid online while promising to make improvements that to date have failed to materialize. A three-day blackout in September 2016 derailed the power utility’s previous push to upgrade the island’s fragile grid. (pdf, in Spanish) Ramos’s new plan lacks specifics but includes two key components: better distribution of power plants throughout the island and the implementation of microgrids that serve fewer customers but can keep the lights on when the main grid fails.

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