Full reconstruction of Puerto Rico's grid could take a decade, says lead contractor
It's been eight months since Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's electric grid. Despite significant recovery work, there are still thousands without power — and though the island is not prepared for it, the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season begins in two weeks.
Recovery work has largely followed two tracks: a rebuilding of the island's grid, alongside the development of smaller distributed storage and renewable energy resources in remote areas. In some instances, observers on the ground say there are Puerto Ricans now permanently defecting from the grid or relying on it only for backup power, given its lack of reliability.
While grid-supplied power will be largely available heading into the storm season, the company tasked with repairing the electric grid admits that it will be fragile. On the other hand, groups, communities and individuals that have worked to add renewables and storage to Puerto Rico may fare better going forward.
A $945M repair contract
The main contract for rebuilding the island's transmission and distribution network went to Cobra Acquisitions, a subsidiary of Mammoth Energy Services.
Mammoth won the $200 million contract for repair work in October 2017, and it has subsequently been increased twice. The company's contract is now worth $945 million. In addition to expanding its repair and restoration mandate, the latest contract update also granted Cobra the ability to source construction materials needed to rebuild infrastructure. Previously, third party contractors hired by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supplied materials.
Mammoth shares were trading around $15 in early October but today go for more than $34.
Despite a torturously slow start to reconstruction, the island's recovery website shows 98.27% of customers now have power. But the grid is very fragile, as demonstrated by multiple large blackouts in the past few months.
This week, a coalition of advocacy groups working together as Power 4 Puerto Rico sounded the alarm that Puerto Rico is not storm-ready, and that the federal government has woefully under-invested in its recovery.
On a media call hosted by the group, Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., said there was $90 billion in devastation caused by the storm, "yet Congress and President Trump only allocated $15 billion. We’re seeing the results of that playing out in thousands of stories everyday of the underfunded recovery."
Soto directly addressed the island's electric system: "As we enter another storm season, we’re only seeing $1 billion invested in rebuilding the electric grid. It is not a surprise that we’re seeing rolling blackouts, rural areas that still don’t have access to power, where traffic lights as recently as three weeks ago were out in urban areas. This is one of the major effects of Congress underfunding the disaster relief effort.”
Mammoth spokesman Peter Mirijanian gave Utility Dive an update on recovery progress and some clarification around future work.
Most of Cobra’s work consists of heavy transmission, aviation transmission (work done via helicopter), overhead and underground distribution, substation, engineering and logistical support, the company said. It is also working for PREPA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), DOE and other entities of the island to "develop the concept of reconstruction focused upon modernizing, automating and hardening the future infrastructure system."
Despite the significant progress made, however, there could be a decade of work ahead to reconstruct, modernize and create a truly resilient system, Mammoth said.
So far, with some exceptions, Cobra has been rebuilding Puerto Rico's grid to PREPA's original standards — which are widely acknowledged to have been out of date. While in some areas, the company reconstructed to more modern standards, by and large, the need for a quick recovery dictated simpler rebuilds.
"Looking to the rebuild, many people have discussed this as an opportunity to reimagine the system with more renewables," Mammoth officials said. "During most storm events, the goal is to quickly restore power to all customers ... a majority of the restoration work performed was to rebuild to the original PREPA construction standards and concepts."
In some areas, restoration was done beyond original standards, though it is not clear how the process was begun. Mammoth said that in some locations during the restoration process, "a justifiable case was made to the Unified Command Group," which included PREPA, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "to essentially reconstruct certain affected areas with newer construction concepts allowing for the hardening of the system and providing greater stability."
With the grid largely back up and running, Cobra's plan is to now begin a complete reconstruction to standardize the infrastructure system, including replacing aging technology and design concepts and "rethinking the system architecture and paths."
The company said the first reconstruction projects are expected to start later this year and could take from seven to 10 years to complete. "This is expected to be a lengthy process," the company said.
The company said many of the electrical circuits "are and will be at risk [in] any inclement conditions they may face. Similar to other large natural disasters in the past, such as Katrina and Sandy, the reconstruction efforts and hardening efforts are expected to take years to complete."
Looking ahead to this immediate season, the company said "the system is still in a fragile state and vulnerable to a significant hurricane. In the coming months, we would expect the work to modernize, automate and harden the system to begin, which will better protect the island from future storms."
Gregg Murphy is vice president of business development for Blue Planet Energy, which manufacturers the lithium ion-based storage system Blue Ion. The company is working with humanitarian initiatives on the ground in Puerto Rico, specifically to power the water pumping system necessary to supply clean water. Along with the loss of power, thousands still lack access to clean water.
"We are trying to rebuild communities," Murphy told Utility Dive. "We are focused on areas where PREPA basically said they were not going to bring power back to those areas. Our focus is bringing power to the people at a grassroots level. And a lot of people are starting to see we can supply better power, more reliable and cheaper than the utility."
It isn't clear just how many customers in Puerto Rico still lack power. In a May 15 report, ABC Action News Tampa Bay estimated 70,000 remain without power, many of them in smaller interior communities. PREPA has 1.5 million customers, though Puerto Rico has experienced an exodus of thousands who are not expected to return. By its count of "abonados," or subscribers, PREPA says it has about 26,000 customers still without power. On social media, many doubt the official numbers.
Murphy spent two months in Puerto Rico and said it is difficult to tell if the official power recovery numbers are accurate.
"It's a pretty unique thing we're seeing in Puerto Rico," he said. "Even people not in desperate need, but who have grid power, are making the decision that they want grid independence."
Blue Planet Energy's work is just one of many grid-edge projects that have been developed in response to Hurricane Maria and the island's power crisis. In the wake of the storm, German energy storage company Sonnen pledged to build microgrids and rival battery provider Tesla said it would deliver "hundreds" of its residential battery systems to Puerto Rico. Tesla also developed a solar-plus-storage project at Hospital del Niño, a children's hospital on the island, in its first set of recovery projects.
The island is grappling with how to change its generation mix. Tesla, Sonnen, Arensis and Sunnova Energy have all been in talks with Puerto Rico officials.
According to Mammoth, power will be restored to all customers. "It is our understanding that the Unified Command Group intends to restore power to 100% of the customers," the company said.
Last year, an assessment completed by Navigant Consulting and the Puerto Rico Energy Resiliency Working
Group concluded it would cost $17.6 billion to build Puerto Rico a more distributed and renewable grid.
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