Hurricane Fiona shows how Puerto Rico’s power grid is still built to fail

Puerto Rico’s 3.1 million residents found themselves in a familiar island-wide blackout this week in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. Some strength has been restored, but 1.1 million customers They are still in the dark until Wednesday morning. He. She may be days Before all Puerto Ricans can turn on the lights and pump pure drinking water.

The blackout comes on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall, a storm that left wounds still scattered across Puerto Rico. There are still more than 3,000 homes on the island Fabrics for ceilings Caused by Maria’s winds of 174 mph. This typhoon caused a devastating power outage that lasted 11 months, casting a shadow of misery as people lost the energy to purify water, cool medicines, and stay cool in the sweltering heat. Close 3000 people died In Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, mostly in the dark afterwards.

The dangers of a massive blackout and the potential for it to happen again have certainly been evident with every turbulent season since Maria. While a hurricane may be a force of nature, the extent and duration of the resulting power outages are a function of preparedness and response. Puerto Rico’s power grid was in tatters for years before Maria made landfall and remained so before Fiona. Blackouts swept the island For months before this week’s storm. This wasn’t even The first island-wide blackout this year.

“It’s a tragedy that most Puerto Ricans have seen,” he said. Luis Martinez, Southeast Director of the Climate and Clean Energy Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Not enough has been done to stabilize the system since Maria.”


despite of billions of dollars Dedicated to supporting Puerto Rico’s power grid after Maria and ambitions to rebuild and rethink the power system, the same obstacles that left the grid in a fragile state remain: sluggish bureaucracy, poor management, a lack of investment, and the inherent difficulty of getting power to an island.

The situation in Puerto Rico may be extreme, but power grids across the United States have also been on the verge of late, as vagaries of weather have pushed demand to record levels with electricity output choking, most notably in California And the Texas. These vulnerabilities are poised to grow as average temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, leading to higher temperatures and more extreme precipitation events.

With that in mind, the blackout in Puerto Rico is an important warning of what could happen in more places if climate change is not addressed and energy providers remain stuck in their old business methods.

Repairing Puerto Rico’s power grid is tough

Puerto Rico’s power challenges begin with its geography. Due to its limited resources, the region imports all the fuel needed to run its main power plants. Saves natural gas 44 percent Of the island’s electricity, petroleum 37%, coal 17%, renewable energy sources 3%.

Because fuel must be charged, most power plants in Puerto Rico are located near the coast, with the largest being located along the southern coastline. But the main energy consumers, including the capital, San Juan, are in the north of the island. This requires the construction of lines to transmit power through the mountainous center of the island, creating choke points that are vulnerable to severe weather and difficult to reach for repair.

Storms are not the only threat. Puerto Rico was hit by an earthquake in 2020, which destroyed it The two largest power plants, forcing them to go offline for months. This has left the island teetering on the brink of interruptions. It shows how concentrating power generation in a few areas can lead to problems spreading throughout the grid.

Map of power generators in Puerto Rico

Much of Puerto Rico’s energy is generated in the south of the island, while most of the demand is in the north.
Energy Information Management

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico needed to stabilize 50000 electric poles and 6,500 miles of cable, some of which had to be connected to remote areas by helicopter. This is part of the reason it takes so long to regain power. Bad decisions also hampered the reconstruction process. Most notably, a small company in Montana called Whitefish Energy Contract worth $300 million to restore the network, but it was barely equipped to handle the job and charged more than double the applicable price to its workers.

It didn’t help that PREPA, Puerto Rico’s public power utility, was already bankrupt when Maria struck. Puerto Rico’s dependence on imported fuels, particularly petroleum, has made PREPA vulnerable to international market shocks: high fuel prices over the years have resulted in the company spending more to keep its power plants running and far less than is needed to keep transmission lines and substations in order. good . PREPA itself has faced longstanding accusations of mismanagement, and after Maria, the company’s top officials have been accused take bribes To restore strength to favorite customers. To date, the company remains $8.2 billion in religion.

Federal aid for post-Maria reconstruction has also been slow to flow. FEMA has allocated $28 billion for recovery projects in Puerto Rico, but Only $5.3 billion Of this money was spent before Fiona. Many proposals to make the island’s electricity grid more resilient have yet to be implemented.

In 2020, a private company called LUMA Energy took on the task of operating Puerto Rico’s power transmission system. But she also faced Criticism for poor performance While it also raised electricity prices, which have more than doubled since January 2021, according to Martinez of the Natural Resources Defense Council. LUMA is seeking more natural gas capacity for the island, but global energy prices have soared this year. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent European cuts to purchases of Russian natural gas increased competition for US LNG exports. Intermittent power outages continued under Loma law, sparking protests across the island last year.

The transition to renewables is already underway, but it is not spreading evenly

Puerto Rico only has ambitions of doing things differently Picked up after Maria. In 2019, the regional government approved Puerto Rico Energy Policy Actwhich ended PREPA’s monopoly, has set a 2028 deadline to phase out coal power, and requires the island to source 40% of the electricity of renewables by 2025 and 100 percent by 2050.

groups like Queremos Sol, which translates as We Want the Sun, helps advocate this transition on the island. The proposals include bringing energy production closer to where it is used, reducing reliance on long-distance transmission, as well as fragmenting the distribution network into small networks so that blackouts in one area do not spread across the entire island. They also want more investment in financing to help low-income residents obtain tools such as solar panels and batteries to ensure more reliable energy.

But Puerto Rico is far behind schedule, and some solar projects have run into difficulties. Tesla’s Efforts to Install PV Panels and Batteries on a Nearby Island Fix It was disrupted by aging wires in people’s homes and regulatory hurdles. Some officials have been reluctant to switch aggressively to renewable energy sources.

“Puerto Rico could be the great experience for the whole nation in terms of having a variety of energy, not just one experience in terms of renewables,” said Jennifer Gonzalez Colon, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress, For Politico in 2021.

At the same time, Puerto Ricans who You can go to solar They already do, and some go Completely off the grid. But that means Puerto Rico’s energy utilities have to distribute energy costs among fewer customers, forcing prices up for many of those who can’t afford them. The population of Puerto Rico During the past decade Well, Maria scrambled the trend.

“I think Puerto Rico needs to be very intentional about how it is transmitted so that it does not hurt the less fortunate people on the island,” Martinez said.

Puerto Rico is not alone in facing these challenges. 2021 Winter storm in Texas Not only did it result in widespread blackouts, but some customers’ electricity bills run as high as $17,000. Californians earlier this month Received an urgent text message To cut off energy use to stave off blackouts as demand for electricity reached a record level during a heat wave. The US power grid is more fragile than many realize. Fixing it will require not just hardware, but a way to equitably share the burden.

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