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Letter from Puerto Rico: The inspiring, frustrating, complex reality of ‘building back better’

The power pole was lying curbside on a street in San Juan — one almost felt sorry for it, left derelict and unclaimed so long after Hurricane Maria blew it down five months ago.

Downed power poles are still a common sight in Puerto Rico.

Much has been written about what’s happening in Puerto Rico — the daily struggles of those still without power; the intensive efforts, volunteer and official, to get the lights back on; and the complicated politics surrounding long-term planning for a clean, resilient and modern grid.

But of course it’s only after visiting the island, seeing conditions on the ground and talking to Puerto Ricans and others firsthand that a clearer picture emerges. Countless efforts are underway, by Puerto Ricans and people of all levels of expertise from the mainland, not only to restore power, but to do so in way that helps solve some of the longstanding challenges and realize the opportunities of “building back better.”

The spirit and innovation of those efforts is truly inspiring. At the same time, the scope of the challenge, the urgency of competing priorities, and the number of parties responsible leave it very unclear if, how, and when these efforts might be holistically coordinated to optimize both near-term and long-term success for the island’s power sector.  Both of us found that to be the biggest concern on recent, but separate, visits to the island.

We had been drawn into the challenge of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power system both as a simple humanitarian response to the crisis, as well as an extension of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) 51st State Initiative. While not conceived with disaster recovery in mind, the project’s focus on re-imagining energy system market structures, and business and customer engagement models, has gained particular resonance in the rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

What we encountered on our visits are the real-life conflicts and contradictions of translating our academic “thought exercise” into a viable, coordinated action plan. Can the different stakeholders find a way to connect the enormous energy of grassroots initiatives for power restoration with the more official, top-down process of long-term planning?

The stock answer to such questions, at present, is that it’s not an either/or situation. While no one “right” vision for Puerto Rico may exist, the different players all appear to be moving forward in more or less the same direction. The questions we found ourselves asking were — will that be enough to bridge the gap, to find a point of interconnection? Will these disparate initiatives build toward a greater good or end up with overlapping, duplicate efforts?

Getting the power back on

The need to tip the balance toward greater good is overwhelmingly clear from the moment one arrives. Five months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria flattened the island, Puerto Rico’s electric power sector is still a mess. In some places, downed power poles are still connected to other poles via distribution lines; in others, lines have been spliced together with black electrical tape.

A cab ride from airport to hotel yields the driver’s story of life on the outskirts of San Juan, where power restoration may still be months away.

Creative responses to the crisis — and the stories of the groups and people behind them — can likewise be found at every turn.

Richard Birt, a 20-year veteran of the Las Vegas Fire Department, has come to help install solar and storage systems at fire stations across the island. The effort is a joint project of solar installer SunRun and the nonprofit Empowered by Light. His passion for the work is rooted in his own experience of living off-grid in the Nevada high desert, relying almost entirely on solar and storage, with only occasional backup from a diesel generator.

Aaron Liggett, an engineer from West Virginia, is another member of the team restoring power to fire stations. He started his career working on coal plants and high voltage transmission lines, and now designs systems for SunRun.

Karla Zambrana, Nelson Hernandez and Yamil Musa all work for Sunnova on the island, where they are helping their 10,000 residential rooftop solar customers add small batteries to their systems. In an emergency, these batteries will be able to provide power for critical loads.

Roger Gural, a project manager for the New York Power Authority, now in his second stint as deputy incident commander on the island. Working 7 days a week 12 hours a day during his 5-week rotation, Gural coordinates logistics for crews from a half dozen mainland utilities working to restore power under the mutual aid agreement.

P.J. Wilson has a degree in civil engineering from the University of Southern California, spent a decade installing and advocating for clean energy in Missouri, and is now in Puerto Rico, where he has started a local chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association (PR-SEIA). In one month, the group pulled together an inaugural PR-SEIA Clean Energy Summit, drawing participation from key officials, island developers, and local and mainland solar organizations.

Such ad hoc efforts are both critical and inspiring.  But they also raise fundamental question about how they fit into a long-term sustainable future for the Puerto Rican power system. What lessons can be learned not only for disaster recovery, but for achieving the island’s stated goals of a creating a more resilient, reliable, sustainable, customer-centric, financially viable power system that will be an economic engine for Puerto Rico.

Private assets, public good

For example, as microgrids emerge as a focus of both short- and long-term power restoration in Puerto Rico, some are raising questions about whether these systems should be seen as private assets or public resources. Speaking at the PR-SEIA conference, Jose Roman, chair of Puerto Rico Energy Commission (PREC), came down on the side of private assets, as did several of the developers at the event.

The argument here is that private capital and assets will be crucial for the island’s economic recovery, a view echoed in the proposed guidelines for microgrid development PREC released in January. But how does private ownership square with the vital role microgrids can play in local resilience and ensuring power for critical facilities in an emergency?

Similarly, Gov. Ricardo Rosello’s proposal for restructuring the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) — including the possible privatization of generation plants — has been put on hold by a request for more detail from the Financial Oversight and Management Board. Whether the governor can meet the board’s request for very specific information, such as long-term financial projections, remains an open question.

This ongoing uncertainty about the future of PREPA and PREC contributes to the challenge of long-term planning and underlines the necessity for ongoing coordination. Innovation, administrative as well as technological, is needed, and looking ahead, all stakeholders on the island have increasingly little wiggle room for bottlenecks and delay.

The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1, and several experts have already predicted a less destructive, but still “above-average” year for hurricane activity.

Coordination to build a resilient, modern grid cannot only be a future goal for Puerto Rico. It must fast become a current reality.

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