Harvey, Irma, and Maria have left their torrential scars on the Caribbean and the US Gulf Coast. These combined storms have shattered lives, destroyed communities and countries, and awakened us to the real imminent impact of climate change. The greatest devastation of these storms has been in Puerto Rico, a US territory of almost 3.5 million Americans. In a recent poll, 97% of Puerto Ricans support becoming a US state. If it were a state, it would rank ahead of 15 states in the size of its economy (gross state product greater than $72 billion) and has a population greater than 24 other states.
Now, Puerto Rico has lost almost the entirety of its power infrastructure, homes, hospitals, crops, water, and ability to self-sustain. It is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. It is time for the US to make a significant and immediately critical investment into Puerto Rico. We should look at this and act with great urgency, while recognizing that we need to completely re-think our grid architecture and resiliency for the rest of the US – not just the coastal area that will be increasingly hit by more powerful storms, or the arras prone to earthquakes, or tornados, or forest fires. Puerto Rico is an opportunity to design, build and translate a new resilient, renewable, and advanced infrastructure for us all.
Step 1: Provide immediate relief efforts and stabilize the country. This is an absolute must. This will take not only the US, but the rest of the world to address. Useless shipping rules that limit the amount of material and relief supplies going into the country must be immediately lifted. We must deliver the needed relief supplies as soon as possible without delay.
Puerto Rico is an opportunity to design, build and translate a new resilient, renewable, and advanced infrastructure for us all.
Step 2: Re-think infrastructure, making it world-class, resilient, and renewable. Puerto Rico’s utility, PREPA, was already billions of dollars in debt and bankrupt by any measure running off expensive imported hydrocarbons. Maria may have pushed it past any chance of regaining solvency, but in that financial tragedy, there is opportunity to break from the past. By adopting independently owned renewables throughout Puerto Rico, the new generating infrastructure will already be lower cost than the imported fossil infrastructure it replaces. The utility of the future coordinates generation assets, it no longer needs to own and operate them.
By integrating renewables and storage into the built environment — especially commercial buildings, critical infrastructure, and multi-family housing — Puerto Rico will create a resilient energy generation design they not only power themselves, but can also power their surrounding communities. This will also minimize the amount of distribution and transmission infrastructure that has to be re-built.
Step 3: Translate this living laboratory’s infrastructure to the rest of the US and the world. Houston and other coastal city’s energy infrastructure will continue to be tested and stressed. By applying what is learned in Puerto Rico, we can harden the infrastructure stepwise and intelligently creating many district utilities that are backed up and balanced by the existing generating infrastructure that is slowly ramped down to smaller version of its current form, but creating a much more resilient, intelligent, and cost-effective energy infrastructure. Either the “build many microgrids at once” or “systematically design microgrids into existing infrastructure to make it better” are strategies and technologies we can then apply to the rest of the world once again exporting leading energy technologies and thinking.
While Puerto Rico and many of the other Caribbean islands devastated by recent hurricanes may look like a hopeless disaster that will take a generation to repair, we should look at these as learning opportunities to build communities and economies of the future. In that, we get to not only build in hope, but infrastructure that will stand the test of time that benefits us all.