The recent hurricanes Irma and Maria have destroyed Puerto Rico’s sole electrical grid, killing more than 90 percent of the distribution network that connects consumers to their source of power. The island’s Utility, which already filed for bankruptcy in July, has said it will be months before the electricity is fully restored.
One challenge for returning power quickly is that Puerto Rico relies primarily on oil and fossil fuels to power its outdated energy infrastructure. In Florida hurricane Irma cut the power of more than 6.7 million people, but in some areas power returned rapidly thanks to homes and cities that had invested in solar energy. It’s clear that renewable, decentralized sources could play a significant role in how communities can recover faster after destructive storms. This is still far from a reality on Puerto Rico, where power generated from alternative and renewable sources is almost non-existent.
In terms of energy infrastructure, the tragedy could be an opportunity for a complete reimagining of Puerto Rico’s energy system, similar to what happened in New York and New Orleans after hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Although taking the opportunity to build back better and cleaner through sustainable, resilient power and transportation systems would require a massive infusion of money, it would be far more sustainable than relying on a single power plant prone to flooding. One possible solution might be the use of microgrids where people can operate in ‘island mode’ and thus parts of the infrastructure can keep working while others lose power. It’s becoming increasingly clear such community-based solutions could help build a more resilient grid in the face of changing climate conditions.