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Failed micro-grids and solar graveyards

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The story of Hurricane Maria is well known at this point. The category 5 storm thrashed the lesser antilles, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in September of 2017. Although it didn’t suffer the same degree of physical damage as some countries, the fallout on Puerto Rico was especially bad because of the island’s large urban populations and old, cumbersome grid system. Following landfall, all 3.4 million residents were left without power. It would take months before even some densely populated areas got back on the grid and, obviously, much longer for more remote areas.

In addition to the general calamity, much attention has been paid to the territory’s grid renovation efforts. In particular, media outlets have highlighted Tesla’s micro-grid and solar initiatives, which were received by Puerto Rico’s governor with open arms. They were feel good stories about getting the power back on in old folks homes, Elon Musk’s genius and how such ingenuity could mitigate the consequences of climate change on PR and in the rest of the world.

However, a story in the Huffington Post last week painted a far less flattering picture of Tesla’s efforts and the island’s microgrid future. The author details how many of the solar setups never even worked because they couldn’t interface with old electric infrastructure, and even many that did work have since fallen into disrepair.

The writer describes the sorry state of one site: “At one water treatment facility, the battery sat dormant and, during HuffPost’s visit to the site in late February, the field of solar panels was overgrown with weeds and brush. Several panels bore the shattered imprints of horse hooves, a predictable problem on an island with one wild horse for every two humans.”

Since Tesla ended their big push in Puerto Rico, the island’s government has passed a bill to go 100% renewable by 2050. But if this Huffington Post article highlights anything, it’s that building alternative, green grids is hard. It’s bound to be even harder in a region known for administrative negligence.

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 29, 2019

Henry, it would be wonderful if it was possible to plop down a microgrid that could provide hurricane victims with a reliable source of emergency power when they need it most. Unfortunately, this type of report is more the rule than the exception. It's more complicated than that, and often these areas experience days of cloudy weather where solar microgrids are essentially useless.

In my opinion/experience - money is far better spent hardening a grid with central generation, whether diesel or a diesel/renewable combination. If people who have lost everything can at least depend on a source of electricity, they can cook. They can pump water, they can shower, they can wash clothes, they can have light and medical care. It would be hard for anyone to begin rebuilding their life without at least that to fall back on.

Robert Magyar's picture
Robert Magyar on June 3, 2019

Most everyone would agree the electrical grid in Puerto Rico has been problematic for many years. As widely reported by any number of worldwide media outlets, a bad combination of massive government debt, allegations of corruption, a weak and uneven electrical grid in terms of coverage and recently the Island in the bull's eye of increasingly stronger and longer lasting hurricanes over the last several years.

It's not a Tesla only story, however. Schneider Electric, a multi-billion dollar international electrical equipment manufacturer has been supplying thousands of the battery storage inverters to distributors throughout the Island. Darfon Electronics, an $800 million a year battery storage solutions manufacturer has and is also supplying equipment to the Island as well. The U.S. national solar installers Sun Run Corporation and Sunova are installing on the Island as well. These companies are all well respected and quality oriented providers of equipment and services.

Looking only at the problems and misses in a major energy transition borne from necessity is a miss. Calling for yet more diesel fuel based massive generators is a miss as well, just look at Hawaii as an example of what happens with that approach over time. Problems with fuel cost and reliability of supply in emergency events are now well known and documented.

In my opinion, its a relatively safe assumption the people of Puerto Rico are for the most part, long past waiting on their government to provide them with reliable power. They are going to find ways to solve their problems in this regard.

 

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