- The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Electricity issued a report Wednesday that recommends options for the rebuilding of Puerto Rico's grid, including considering a wide range of renewables and alternative fuels, an expansion of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, microgrids and energy storage.
- In the nine months since Hurricane Maria struck the island and destroyed its electric grid, repairs have largely been completed and the process has shifted into a consideration of how to construct a cleaner, more modern, efficient and reliable grid.
- Puerto Rico's economy has struggled throughout the reconstruction effort, as the island is billions in debt and its utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), is bankrupt. Governor Ricardo Rossello signed a bill on Wednesday that allows for the partial privatization of PREPA.
Though the great majority of Puerto Rico's residents now have power, the road ahead to reconstruct the system — in a way that meets modern standards and the island's renewables goals — will be complicated. And while DOE's report lays out many recommendations and options for the island, including some that can be acted on immediately, specific decisions about the future of the grid will require additional study.
The report is meant to present recommendations for the government of Puerto Rico to consider as it develops recovery plans, particularly "investments that use federal appropriations in the energy infrastructure."
"Moving toward a more diverse fuel portfolio, including alternative fossil fuels, renewable energy and energy efficiency, will produce significant cost reductions," the report said. "Fuel-efficient load following combustion turbines could greatly improve fuel efficiency as compared to conventional steam turbine power plants."
Given the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority's (PREPA) pre-storm estimated sales in 2026, DOE's report estimates "as few as three of PREPA’s current power plants may satisfy estimated load in ten years, when combined with purchased power."
Currently the utility owns about 4.9 GW of generation, more than 90% of which is heavy fuel oil.
The island has one natural gas import terminal supplying the EcoEléctrica power plant with fuel from Trinidad and Tobago and other markets. Expansions of import capacity have been considered and rejected in the past, but DOE's report noted "as generation infrastructure is modernized, the flexibility [of] modern equipment fired by alternative fossil fuels becomes a critical characteristic."
Puerto Rico is aiming to supply 20% of electricity sales with renewable energy by 2035, which DOE estimated as approximately 1,200 MW of renewable electricity capacity. The report says that using PREPA's load forecasts of 2,000 MW average daily load, the current renewables target "would translate to an ambitious but still achievable goal."
The island already has biomass resources, and DOE said it could explore importing biomass pellets from the Southeastern region of the United States. Municipal solid-waste-to-energy facilities are also a consideration: the island has 29 landfills and many are beyond capacity.
But while PREPA has myriad generation options, DOE's report is straightforward about the challenge ahead for the island.
"While this scale of restoration and recovery would challenge any community, Puerto Rico has already faced economic and workforce issues which exacerbated the difficulty of restoration efforts and dimmed the prospects of a quick recovery," the report said. The DOE cites the loss of skilled labor due to out-migration as a challenge to restarting the island's economy.
Notwithstanding the ongoing challenges faced by Puerto Rico, DOE called for some immediate steps: transmission towers installed specifically for temporary emergency restoration "should be considered for prioritized replacement, potentially by monopoles," many of which withstood Hurricane Maria's winds. And the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, working with PREPA, "should implement microgrid regulations" to "allow customers to design their systems in a manner that supports the reliability and resilience of the broader electricity grid."
Speaking about the privatization of PREPA, Gov. Rossello said it will help bring in a more storm-resistant grid and lower electricity prices for homes and businesses. But there's significant uncertainty on the island regarding any future price declines, Bloomberg reported.