Let It Shine – Shedding Light On Puerto Rico’s Microgrid Predicament

Almost everyone has lost power in their home or apartment at some point. Perhaps, you’ve experienced just a short outage, or maybe you’ve had the unpleasant experience of being without power for several days. Born and raised in Western New York, I recall losing power for several days during the October Storm of 2006. Roughly half a million people were without power after the Storm dropped 3.5 feet of snow on the Greater Buffalo Region, and nearly 100,000 people were still without power five days later.

By comparison, Puerto Rico has roughly 800,000 to 1.3 million people who are either without power entirely or require generators to run basic appliances. Maunabo in particular, has not had power since Hurricane Irma, well before Maria destroyed the island’s entire electrical grid. With only 50% of the island maintaining reliable power generation, discussions amongst numerous politicians, agencies, and industry leaders center on how to build Puerto Rico a new grid network that can produce cleaner, more efficient power that will withstand the force of the next category 5 hurricane.

A grid as a whole, is just the centralized electrical system. PREPA’s traditional grid structure, like many traditional grids elsewhere, is a linkage of power plants; power stations and substations to make electricity transferable long distance through high voltage and stepped-down power lines; and household transformers. A microgrid is just a miniature version of the traditional grid, with the ability to become decentralized from the main grid.

A microgrid approach, based on a network of mini power grids, seems to make the most sense and I am merely one of thousands of people who share this sentiment. The reasoning is simple, too. A microgrid allows the power user to become disconnected from the traditional grid, but still have power. How? The user is connected to the traditional grid structure, in Puerto Rico’s case this would be PREPA’s grid, in addition to having the microgrid.

When it’s sunny, the microgrid creates its own solar power, convertible into AC power for use with home and business appliances. When there are several days in a row of sunlight, the microgrid holds a surplus of energy, which it can spin back through the traditional utility meter into PREPA’s grid. User utility bills are reduced accordingly based on the amount of surplus energy transferred back onto the traditional grid. In the event of a traditional grid outage, the microgrid can survive on its own until its stored energy runs out.

Unlike in other areas on the mainland, the situation Puerto Rico does not hinge on accepting that microgrids are a good idea for that area: the general consensus is they are absolutely necessary. Accordingly, the critical debate now centers on how much money a network of microgrids for the Island will cost. Additionally, experts and politicians within the United States are hesitant to give PREPA control of funds for contract procurement given the recent controversies involving PREPA awarding contracts to defunct entities. The Financial Oversight Management Board (FOMB) and PREPA are split on whether privatization of Puerto Rico’s energy generation is in the best interest of consumers.

Readers can find the current microgrid proposal (and other information about the grid) here.  The proposal highly encourages PREPA become privatized and interested readers are highly encouraged to read the proposal to get an idea of which private actors are involved.

PREPA’s internal regulator, the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, opened a 30-day comment period on the proposed regulations and microgrid installations on January 9th. Today, January 24th, the FOMB and PREPA are scheduled to release fiscal policy recommendations outlining what the privatization of PREPA might look like.

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