Puerto Rico Devastation

Puerto Rico Devastation

Puerto Rico and its citizens have just suffered a devastating blow from hurricane Maria.

The utility system was hard hit, leaving most people without electricity.

Unfortunately, some outsiders, both people and organizations, have jumped on Puerto Rico’s bad fortune as an opportunity to push an agenda. Apparently, no disaster should go to waste.

One even used the disaster to ask for money to support its agenda promoting solar and wind.

Those promoting solar, storage and micro-grids were quick to jump on the disaster to promote a complete revamp of the Island’s utility system with an emphasis on solar for generating electricity.

But it wasn’t the island’s inability to generate electricity that was the problem; it was the destruction of its transmission and distribution system that prevented electricity from being delivered to where it was needed. The power plants themselves were not destroyed.

Probably the most notorious and self-serving statements were made by Elon Musk.

Newsweek reported:

“Tesla chief Elon Musk says his company can solve Puerto Rico’s energy crisis using solar panels and batteries.”

Perhaps, Musk should fix his Model 3 production line before pontificating on how to fix the Puerto Rico grid.

The immediate problem is to restore power to the people of Puerto Rico, which means stringing lines and installing distribution poles and transmission towers. This is dangerous work that will take time. We don’t want people being electrocuted because restoration efforts were rushed.

Humanitarian needs must take preference over theoretical changes to the grid.

Puerto Rico is bankrupt, and American taxpayers may end up paying for much of the restoration effort. The linemen and engineers who will largely come from the states will have to be paid.

The American people need to know that the grid is being restored as quickly as possible and in such a way that minimizes future disruptions while being accomplished at the lowest cost.

There is obviously a need for a three-step plan:

  1. The first step is to restore power to all those who had electricity before the hurricane.
  2. The second is to convert rickety structures, such as wooden distribution poles and weak transmission towers, to designs that can withstand hurricane force winds, using underground distribution where applicable, when flooding won’t cause more problems. The more restructuring that can be done during the restoration process, the better.
  3. The final stage will be to balance the costs of distributed power generation with the cost of imported fuels. Solar, wind, and storage can work on small islands, such as Kauai with a population of 71,000 where demand for electricity is low, but will they be more economical and reliable on larger islands, such as Puerto Rico, where there are over three million people.

Proponents of solar, wind and storage want to jump to the third step, using the disaster in Puerto Rico as the rationale for doing so, even though it will take longer to restore power to everyone and result in a Rube Goldberg grid.

Island Environment

Puerto Rico, like most islands, lacks local supplies of coal, oil, natural gas or diesel fuel, so these commodities must be imported at high cost to fuel baseload power plants.

The higher fuel costs make levelized cost of electricity from coal-fired and natural gas or diesel power plants much higher than in locations where fossil fuels are readily available. This appears to make the cost of wind and solar attractive.

But wind and solar can’t supply electricity 24/7 for 365 days a year, so it’s necessary to have baseload power plants or sufficient storage to meet peak demand.

Storage

Puerto Rico consumed 19.4 billion kWh in 2014. Tesla claims its battery storage costs are $250 per kWh. At this price, battery storage would cost Puerto Rico nearly $5 trillion if all baseload power was eliminated. And this storage would have to be replaced every twenty years or so.

To put storage costs in perspective, building natural gas power plants at $1,100 per KW, would cost half as much as storage for an equal amount of electricity, and would last at least twice as long.

Therefore, the capital cost of storage is at least four times greater than the cost of building natural gas power plants.

Micro-grid

The other term that’s bandied about is micro-grid, yet no one has defined how they would operate.

There are fuzzy descriptions of micro-grids, and some examples of universities and corporations that use micro-grids.

Essentially a micro-grid is a self-contained island within which there is power generation, distribution, and storage. While self-contained, it’s designed to operate as part of a larger grid.

The purported advantage of the micro-grid is that it can separate itself from the grid and operate in a self-contained mode.

Whether this would have been helpful in Puerto Rico after Maria is debatable since it was the distribution part of the system that would have been destroyed, no different from what actually happened.

San Juan before Maria showing distribution lines. Photo by D. Dears

PREPA Mismanagement

PREPA, the government-owned power authority responsible for the grid, mismanaged the grid before Maria and has mismanaged the recovery effort after Maria: Demonstrating once again that government bureaucracies are incapable of doing anything efficiently.

PREPA hired a small, hardly ever heard of before company, to provide the needed assistance for restoring the transmission and distribution lines.

It’s been reported that nearly one month after the hurricane, there were only around 300 trained linemen, brought from the mainland, working to restore the transmission and distribution system when there should have been at least 500 brought from the mainland within the first ten days after the storm: Followed subsequently, by as many additional trained linemen as needed.

In the past, when GE’s independent service organization responded to multiple hurricane and other disasters, management knew it was always best to front-end load the recovery effort, because the task was invariably greater than first thought. If the task turned out to be less daunting than expected, excess resources could always be removed from the project, with the recovery done more quickly than expected.

It should be noted that 500 linemen only results in 125 to 150 teams working to restore a system that’s over 32,000 miles long.

The incompetence of the recovery effort should not be an excuse to promote wind and solar when power generation was not the problem, but transmission and distribution was.

Summary

The fundamental issue is whether a micro-grid using solar for power generation in combination with storage is less costly than using a natural gas, or similar fossil fuel power plant.

In either case, the distribution system must be made as resilient as possible within financial and physical constraints. For example, underground distribution may not be practical due to the possibility of flooding.

Each situation will need to be evaluated, from an island the size of Kauai to that of Puerto Rico, to determine which combination of fossil fuel or wind and solar power plant, in combination with storage, is least costly and most reliable.

In the case of Puerto Rico, this is not an easy answer. Rushing to take advantage of the hurricane disaster to promote an agenda is wrong.

. . .

Leave a Reply