By Mark Feasel
During the summer of 2017, Puerto Rico was hit with a series of storms that challenged the infrastructure, power grid, and mettle of its inhabitants. As of March 7, over 10 percent of electric customers are still without power, according to the US Department of Energy. Mobilization of the first responders and energy providers have helped the Puerto Rican community begin to recover, while also identifying creative solutions to ensure Puerto Rico is better prepared for future weather events.
For Schneider Electric and its partners, recovery efforts in Puerto Rico have centered on three core principles. Firstly, we are committing resources towards delivering solutions that help restore power to those without electricity as quickly as possible through short-term solutions. Secondly, we are working with our local and global strategic alliance partners to help end users be more resilient and less susceptible to future power disruption risks in the future through hardened grid infrastructure and modern microgrid solutions. Finally, we are working with government stakeholders like the Puerto Rico Energy Commission (PREC) to create rules that incentivize microgrid adoption on the island, which will enable more flexible and practical pricing for microgrid development. Though a devastating event for the island, this moment in time is shining a light on the need to upgrade Puerto Rico’s outdated infrastructure and create a more secure, flexible, sustainable, and resilient grid.
Prior to the storms, the island was reliant on the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), its sole provider of electricity which served a population of 3.4 million people. The grid was fragile, expensive, and inefficient; nearly half (46 percent) of its power generation came from expensive oil-fired plants, while only three percent of its power came from solar resources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. However, the rapidly dropping costs of solar and storage, along with the possibility of natural gas solutions coming to the island, means that larger portions of the load will be served by decentralized microgrids in the future – in both public and private arrangements.
In these urgent times, it is important to provide immediate support to restore power as quickly as possible. In the aftermath of last summer’s hurricanes, energy providers have taken action to deliver temporary solutions that help restore power to the communities and businesses which drive the welfare of Puerto Rico. To meet these immediate needs, Schneider Electric brought more than 5 megawatts (MW) of solar power back online by restoring 1,500 photovoltaic (PV) systems using our Distributed Storage Solutions (DSS) and has been supplying equipment across the island to support temporary aid. Although helpful in meeting Puerto Ricans’ critical and immediate power needs like cellphone charging, powering cash machines and providing electricity service for health care and first responders, these distributed systems are not the long-term solution for the grid.
Community, critical infrastructure, and industrial microgrids are essential to creating a robust electrical system that will offer the island resilient power during superstorms in the future. To that end, the island has acknowledged the advantages of microgrid installation in order to modernize Puerto Rico’s power grid, however, financial and regulatory barriers remain towards putting that into practice.
Forward-looking power solutions like advanced microgrids are needed to prepare Puerto Rico to have power resilience throughout superstorms. Decentralized, grid-independent energy systems would offer more resilient power to the island by allowing providers to anticipate outages and place the systems into “island mode,” during which they can operate at or near full capacity. Beyond solar power, microgrids can pull in other distributed power resources (DER) that enable sustainable energy usage, including natural gas, combined heat, and power, hydrogen and biofuels.
When selecting a provider for microgrid installation, it is important for facilities on the island to find a company that can offer an efficient, sustainable and cost-effective power solution in the long-term, since financing remains a major barrier for microgrid adoption, both in Puerto Rico and globally. Facilities that need microgrids often worry about costs and end up delaying such initiatives, but these financing concerns can be addressed through financial models like Microgrid-as-a-Service (MaaS) and Energy-as-a-Service that enable microgrids to be developed with no upfront costs in a public-private partnership arrangement.
Additionally, Puerto Rican companies can benefit from modular, pre-wired solutions that can be easily integrated with their current systems to help operate within and updated its outdated electrical infrastructure.
To address the regulatory concerns, the PREC has recently stepped in to provide oversight of PREPA’s plans, spending and rates. The organization has been active in proposing new regulations that would allow for swift and safe microgrid development that would alleviate the burden on the island’s antiquated grid. Additionally, companies and energy technology providers are currently working with the PREC to ensure regulation is put in place that is safe and reliable, while also being flexible under current circumstances. Efforts have centered on defining microgrids to determine which types of island mode-enabled grids will be covered with these new regulations, and the PREC is incentivizing the development of microgrids by charging fees to the microgrids that will interconnect with PREPA systems.
We are all working towards a common goal in the wake of Puerto Rico’s recovery, and microgrids can help us apply lessons learned in this recovery period to achieve more efficient, sustainable and resilient Puerto Rican power systems. The urgency of Puerto Rico’s situation has forced government regulators to acknowledge the importance of proactively and reactively preparing the power grid for resilience, and MaaS financing models are making this possible to achieve through microgrids. By working together with government entities to rework local regulations and incentivize microgrid development, Schneider Electric and its strategic alliance partners are helping Puerto Rico remake its power system to become more efficient, sustainable and resilient in the face of major storms.
This article was edited by Pardis Khayyer.
Mark Feasel is responsible for Schneider Electric’s smart grid activities in North America, which are focused on optimizing energy efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability from the electric utility control center through a consumer’s loads. Mark’s experience with microgrid began in the 1980’s when he was responsible for the operation and maintenance of the electrical systems associated with the nuclear reactor on a ballistic missile submarine, and has continued throughout his career while leading an energy management and distributed generation controls company, and leading commercial operations of the Power Management and Controls business for Schneider Electric North America. .