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Puerto Rico needs an underground transmission system

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner , Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • Sep 20, 2022
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Hurricane Maria landed half a decade ago. The storm thrashed the lesser antilles, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Although it didn’t suffer the same degree of physical damage as some countries, the fallout on Puerto Rico was especially bad because of the island’s large urban populations and old, cumbersome grid system. Following landfall, all 3.4 million residents were left without power and power wasn’t fully restored until more than a year later. There was an estimated 100 billion in damages and thousands died. The destruction, and shameful recovery effort, sent many Puerto Ricans packing for the mainland. 

When I think back to the media coverage surrounding the disaster, I remember three angles that most stories fit into. First, that this was just a little taste of our future on a warmer planet. Ultimately nothing could be done to undue, mitigate, or even adapt to the new hostile climate. Puerto Ricans were early victims of climate change, but we all shared the same fate. Then there were the articles about the administrative negligence that left Puerto Rico so unprepared for the event, and subsequently doomed the island to a painfully slow recovery. On the surface, corrupt Puerto Rican officials were to blame, but a closer look revealed the root cause: American imperialism. Finally, there was the optimist’s take. The hurricane was a tragedy, but tech ingenuity and a new found urgency would keep a similar disaster from happening again. 

In particular, much attention was paid to the territory’s grid renovation efforts. Media outlets highlighted Tesla’s micro-grid and solar initiatives, which were received by Puerto Rico’s governor with open arms. They were feel good stories about getting the power back on in old folks homes, Elon Musk’s genius and how such ingenuity could mitigate the consequences of climate change on PR and in the rest of the world. 

Well, five years have passed, and it seems the pessimists might have been right.  According to reports, yesterday morning, most of the island’s inhabitants woke up without power. The culprit: Hurricane Fiona, only a category 2 storm when it made landfall on Puerto Rico. 

The governor has said that power should be returned in a matter of days, but he’s also admitted many of the downed lines have yet to be checked. Given the island’s recent history, it would be credulous to take the governor’s word for it. 

So what happened to all the tesla solar and the microgrids that were supposed to mitigate prolonged outages while also pushing the island towards 100% renewables? The Tesla solar initiative was dead as early as 2018, as this article in the Huffington Post made clear: 

“At one water treatment facility, the battery sat dormant and, during HuffPost’s visit to the site in late February, the field of solar panels was overgrown with weeds and brush. Several panels bore the shattered imprints of horse hooves, a predictable problem on an island with one wild horse for every two humans.”

 The solution to Puerto Rico’s grid problems is the same as for most parts of the world embattled by increasingly predictable unpredictable weather: Bury the power lines. Sure, it’s absorbently expensive, but so are all these disasters. Keeping transmission systems above ground is beginning to look like a false economy in places like Puerto Rico and California. 

Rich countries in western Europe put their lines underground a long time ago, so when will America, the richest country in the world, do the same? 


 

Discussions
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 20, 2022

What will be telling to watch is how the recovery process plays out compared with the last major storm. Have the systems installed helped for more swift re-electrification? 

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Sep 20, 2022

This is a question, not a comment.  Were any of the transmission lines put underground in Puerto Rico after the last disaster?

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on Sep 27, 2022

A tragically low bar was set in 2017-18, so I'd be surprised if they don't manage to do better this time around. One week in, and things aren't going great: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/puerto-rico-us-fuel-shipment-jones-act-waiver/

Sandy Lawrence's picture
Sandy Lawrence on Sep 27, 2022

Agree wholeheartedly. An energy friend of mine texted recommendation to bury at least transmission lines, if not distribution lines, also to set up microgrids. First + foremost energy efficiency: LEDs + heat pumps. Also distributed storage for several days backup of critical circuits.
Another whole issue of construction of hurricane tough buildings. But at least get as many lines underground as feasible.

Xavier Davis's picture
Xavier Davis on Sep 29, 2022

Thanks Henry for your post! I totally agree with your comments regarding Puerto Rico and other neighboring countries/islands in the Carribbean that could use an underground transmission system to prevent any power losses. This is something to definitely keep in mind and make future plans for.

Larry Eisenberg's picture
Larry Eisenberg on Oct 3, 2022

Henry: Thanks for posting this. A couple of years before Hurricane Maria, my firm was pursuing a renewable energy project for a larger private entity in Puerto Rico. They have multiple sites around the island so I got to travel across Puerto Rico. Some of their sites are quite remote. Each site had a diesel generator because the electric lines to each site had a tendency to break. In fact, for one site, the power lines literally fell down on an almost weekly basis due to plant growth. The vines would grow on the power lines and make them collapse. It became clear to me that the only solution was on site renewable energy.  The other solution clearly was to bury the power lines. As fate would have it, neither happened.  Then I watched from a distance as Maria did its worst, and with no surprise, the electrical system was destroyed across the island.  I thought this would be a great opportunity to finally tackle this plain as day issue and underground the entire system. Instead, as we all know, the decision was made to just rebuild the system as it had been.  This is the classic definition of crazy - do the same thing and expect a different result.  As we are seeing now, after Ian, they are at it again. The vast waste of money that we see being spent in response to natural disaster astounds and frustrates me to no end. It does not matter if it is Puerto Rico or Florida or elsewhere. In places that have adopted modern building codes and climate responsive solutions, we see the right answer. One can hope that policy makers, regulators, and management will understand that spending the money now to do things right is a far better choice than wasting money by doing the same old same old.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 3, 2022

Makes more sense to harden the generating and transmission assets. Putting the assets underground is not remotely financially viable for a large island that is largely poor.

Henry Craver's picture
Thank Henry for the Post!
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