Power outages plunged Puerto Rico into darkness after the worst earthquake in more than a century struck the U.S. territory on Jan. 7. The 6.4 magnitude earthquake caused serious damage to the Costa Sur power plant, bringing reminders of blackouts in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Power was restored to most of the territory several days after the earthquake.
How bad was the damage at Costa Sur? What has Puerto Rico done to strengthen its power grid since Hurricane Maria? What else needs to be done to ensure the electricity grid’s resiliency in the face of natural disasters in the future?
Ruth Santiago, lawyer and environmental policy expert based in Puerto Rico: “Initially, PREPA reported that the damage to the Costa Sur plant was minimal and that power would be restored in a day or two. However, it later claimed that the damage was so serious that it could take a year to repair. PREPA’s director said the federal government should provide a new 500-megawatt generation unit for the Palo Seco site or mobile generation. This has been part of the government’s agenda since Hurricane Maria. The government lacks credibility, and it may be that it is exaggerating the damage to the Costa Sur plant to advance the buildout of methane, ‘natural’ gas infrastructure in response to pressure from the mainland U.S. fracking industry. There has been little or no strengthening or hardening of the grid. After Hurricane Maria, work focused on repairing the fallen transmission and distribution systems that took a beating from the Category 4 and 5 hurricane-force winds. PREPA’s focus has been on conversion of San Juan Units 5 and 6 to burn gas in conjunction with New Fortress Energy.
Experts such as Professor Marcel Castro Sitiriche of the University of Puerto Rico affirm that the main objective should be to ensure electricity resilience for the people, which is not the same as ensuring the resiliency of the electric grid. Distributed systems at the household level provide more resiliency than centralized plants. Experts consider rooftop solar installations coupled with battery energy storage systems, power electronics, energy efficiency and demand management to be the primary tools for transformation of Puerto Rico’s electrical system.”
Ingrid M. Vila Biaggi, former chief of staff for the Puerto Rico government and co-founder and president of CAMBIO: “The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) must recognize, once and for all, that continued reliance on and investment in a centralized energy system is incompatible with the island’s reality and the needs of the population. Had PREPA concentrated its efforts and resources after Hurricane Maria in the deployment of rooftop photovoltaic systems and storage, Puerto Rico certainly would be better equipped to face present natural stressors. The Jan. 7 earthquake must mark a before and after for PREPA. Investments in natural gas (methane) and fossil fuels, as well as privatization plans, must be left in the past. Methane gas infrastructure represents a particular risk during seismic events, including the probability of leaks and breaks in pipes and storage tanks. Privatization by its very nature prioritizes profit and gains over public interest, increasing vulnerabilities under crisis situations. A new electric sector reality can emerge that incorporates risk reduction, climate change, public health, equity and democratization. It requires an integrated energy focus based on efficiency, conservation and distributed renewable resources as presented in the multisectoral initiative ‘Queremos Sol’ (We Want Sun). Immediate installation of rooftop solar and storage for vulnerable populations should be prioritized in order to meet, at a minimum, their critical demand during grid failures and enable operation of medical equipment and refrigerators. PREPA, as a public entity, has a unique opportunity to lead this attainable island-wide transformation in close coordination and communication with citizens, communities and stakeholders. This jump-start requires vision, will, transparency and a dose of common good. Individuals and organizations working on these matters stand ready to collaborate in this effort.”
David J. Carrasquillo, manager of planning and community development and Puerto Rico operations at the Hispanic Federation: “Since Hurricane Maria, it has become widely evident that there is a need to update our energy infrastructure in a way in which a balance between centralized grids and independent, local-scale, renewable energy systems can thrive. On the one hand, the centralized grid represents the survival of whatever is left of the Puerto Rican economy and a social justice project that provides (at least for now, before privatization) affordable services, which enables a fair quality of life for our citizens. On the other hand, renewable systems represent the mitigation of the uncertainty produced by decades of mismanagement, colonial rule and dreadful decision-making. Redundancy means life or death. Systemic shifts in energy consumption, daily routines and economic development strategies will be necessary. PREPA, to this day, has not provided a trustworthy assessment of the damages to Costa Sur nor a prudent course of action to tackle this enormous and sudden additional complication. This is information that the island’s officials and the public need in order to move forward. For the past two years, the transition toward renewable energy has been slow and sloppy.”
Malu Blázquez, executive director of Reimagina Puerto Rico, a program of the Center for a New Economy: “The 6.4 magnitude earthquake on Jan. 7 caused a shutdown of Puerto Rico’s entire electrical system, and once again the island experienced a complete blackout. The earthquake caused serious damage to the Costa Sur power plant, which normally produces 840 megawatts of power, while peak demand is 2,400 megawatts, and caused delays in bringing other power plants in the south back to normal operation. It has been reported that it could take up to a year to repair Costa Sur and make it operational again, due to structural damage to the facilities, tanks and its control and command center. It took five days to re-establish electricity to 97 percent of customers, and electricity could be intermittent until other major power sources, such as Eco Eléctrica, completely return online. Last summer, PREPA presented a new Integrated Resource Plan, which the regulator is currently evaluating. In conjunction with the recently published Modernization Grid Plan (which has a cost of $20 billion over a 10-year timeframe), the government of Puerto Rico developed its plans to harden and modernize the electrical grid and develop a more resilient electrical system composed of eight interconnected microgrids, which can operate independently if necessary. More than 29 months after Hurricane Maria, plans have been developed, yet the much-needed appropriated federal funding earmarked for the electrical system repairs has not yet arrived to harden and modernize the transmission and distribution system. We are still waiting.”
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Story by the Latin America Advisor.