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Emergency relief or long-term redesign? U.S. energy industry response to the electricity crisis in Puerto Rico should not be either/or

The pictures and stories of devastation that have emerged from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria battered the island two weeks ago have become a call to action that is galvanizing cleantech and energy industry organizations across the U.S.

With more than 90 percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents still without power — and many months of system rebuilding ahead —  lights, air conditioning and sewage systems are still down. Hospitals are only open for a limited number of hours a day — if they are open at all — because their onsite generators don’t have enough diesel to run at full capacity. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island’s government-owned utility, is bankrupt and, even before the storm, was mired in a tangle of legal and regulatory issues.

Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, left Puerto Rico’s electric system literally in pieces. (Photos by Tomas Torres, courtesy of Public Utilities Fortnightly)

We must act. The challenges and opportunities before us are clear, but they are also complex.

First, the immediate, most basic needs of Puerto Ricans must be met, including emergency power. Here, the resilience, flexibility and fast deployment of distributed energy resources — specifically solar plus storage — is readymade to provide the electricity the island so desperately requires. Companies such as Tesla and Sonnen are donating batteries and panels, working with local organizations to get power where it is needed most. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has  launched a similar effort aimed at working with local groups and emergency personnel to provide equipment and expertise.

As its first step, the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) has decided to focus its efforts on raising funds to support the emergency relief efforts of grassroots organizations on the island. Light and Hope for Puerto Rico, for example, is working to provide solar, cell phone chargers and other assistance to communities across the island.

And then? Given the current urgency of restoring basic services, even starting to talk about longer-term plans for Puerto Rico’s electric system may seem inappropriate, if not plainly opportunistic. But with the daunting task of grid restoration still ahead, this does not have to be an either/or situation.

While recognizing the complexity of the political, economic, technical and cultural issues that will surround grid rebuilding in Puerto Rico, SEPA supports starting an open conversation in parallel with emergency relief efforts. Those of us working to advance the energy transition in the U.S. can share visions and ideas, gather feedback, and develop the basic knowledge and insights we will need to be ready and effective when the leaders and communities of Puerto Rico shift their attention to redesigning their grid.

 

SEPA’s 51st State — a natural fit

Three years ago, SEPA launched its 51st State project with a call to the energy industry to imagine an ideal, distributed energy market, built from the ground up as if for a new 51st state. Since that time, the project has brought together experts and thought leaders from across the industry, who have mapped out various options for transforming utility business and regulatory models to create the dynamic, smart power markets of the future.

One of our key goals from the beginning has been to create an open platform for cross-industry collaboration and knowledge sharing. We recognized that the transition and reform of energy markets would never be a one-size-fits-all proposition. Rather, our approach has always focused on encompassing a broad range of stakeholders, technologies and market conditions by providing flexible tools and structures that could be customized for local jurisdictions, with no preconceived outcomes.

Thus, SEPA is committed to working collaboratively with Puerto Ricans, along with industry organizations such as the American Public Power Association, SEIA and the Energy Storage Association, to help the island create a more resilient grid that meets its local needs and market conditions. We are also exploring the possibility of expanding the 51st State platform — and all its resources — to become a clearinghouse for industry strategies and initiatives aimed at helping to reimagine and rebuild the Puerto Rican electric system.

Those interested in joining our efforts should fill out this form.

The work we do in support of Puerto Rico can provide models and momentum for the energy transition that continues to unfold across the U.S.  Grid reliability and resilience requires forward-looking innovation, collaboration and action. The opportunity to rebuild their power systems, literally from the ground up, could be a catalyst for Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands to become leaders in the global transition to smart, clean and resilient energy.

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