The following is a contributed article by Javier Rúa-Jovet, chief policy officer of the Solar & Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico.
It’s no coincidence that this year’s gathering of the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or SEARUC, was held in San Juan. All eyes are on Puerto Rico’s fascinating story of innovation in resilient energy, spurred principally by thousands of solar batteries deployed since the devastating hurricanes of 2017.
We’re now at a pivotal moment, sitting on a massive virtual power plant, or VPP, an existing and growing network of solar powered storage units that can be dispatched in unison to share power when most needed, like at peak power demand hours. It’s a clean, island-wide, resilient power generator that could save thousands of lives and dollars while preventing blackouts small and large. And turning our VPP on as fast as possible is the policy mandated by the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, or PREB, the local regulator. All that’s left to do is to “flip the switch.”
After the almost year-long blackout that followed 2017’s Hurricane Maria, forward-looking, pro-renewables bipartisan local legislative reforms and regulatory actions were enacted, which set the framework to achieve 40% generation from renewables by 2025 and 100% by 2050. But since then, virtually all new investment in renewables (fundamentally distributed solar plus storage) has come not from government — but nonprofits, private donations, and most importantly, Puerto Ricans themselves, aided by new and beneficial private financing options.
Puerto Ricans have taken their energy resiliency into their own hands. Over 55,000 rooftop-solar powered batteries are already on Puerto Rican homes, a fleet that grows by around 2,000 every month. These families and small businesses are now individually protected during blackouts, but they could also help all other consumers via their stored energy.
These VPPs could be mitigating blackouts today, without firing up dirty and expensive government-run fossil peaker plants.
It’s therefore puzzling how the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority simply drags its feet, despite PREB’s now over 16-month old order for PREPA to procure substantial solar plus storage VPP resources.
June 30 is PREB’s current deadline for PREPA to submit final pricing for all mandated renewable projects. Perhaps a clearer status of a total of 490 MW of 9 utility-scale storage projects and one 17 MW VPP project, will be shared publicly. Still, 17 MW is but a fraction of the not lesser than 150 MW VPP initially mandated and many orders of size smaller than the actual and expanding untapped VPP ready to be deployed today in the island. That June date is closing in soon, but as experience is the best teacher, that date could sadly come and go, with little consequence.
One common misconception held by utilities, including PREPA, as well as the island’s transmission & distribution operator (LUMA), is that the entire power grid must be first completely overhauled and modernized before a VPP discussion is even possible. In reality, no new infrastructure is needed for a basic VPP to be put to use today, and in any case, the necessary technology and software is already built into commercially available batteries from companies like Tesla, Enphase, SolarEdge and others.
Here’s how it works: either the utility asks the company orchestrating the VPP ahead of time which days hours it wants the batteries activated, and the companies proceed (via the wireless Internet communications already built into all these batteries) and/or the utility pushes a button that says “there’s a potential blackout coming, activate VPP,” communicating this message to the companies in charge of the battery fleets. Within seconds, thousands of batteries are activated, thus avoiding expensive peaker plant costs and also preventing the impending blackout.
It’s not too late for PREPA to see the obvious economic and societal value of VPPs. Not only do we have an opportunity to save lives and money, but we can be an example for the rest of the United States and the planet.
The largest renewable peaker plant in the world has already been built in Puerto Rico and it’s simply waiting to be tapped. Let’s use it!