What to Learn From the Failure of Puerto Rico's Power Grid

Some takeaways from the catastrophe in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Most Puerto Ricans have long known what their fellow Americans are now learning: the U.S. territory’s electricity grid is a mess.

Underfunded. Brittle. Forced outages. These are some of the words used to described the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, in a November 2016 analysis of the utility. The island’s power grid was already vulnerable, in other words, well before the Category 4 Hurricane Maria slammed the island.

“Severe outages, deferred maintenance, and a lack of experienced staff have resulted in an increasingly brittle transmission system,” the report by outside experts found. “PREPA’s customer outage rate is far higher than other U.S. utilities, and this rate has been increasing over the last two years.”

Now, more than a week since Maria, almost all of the island remains without power. And there is no literal light at the tunnel expected in the near future -- possibly even for the next four to six months.

There are lessons to be learned for the rest of the country, and as Puerto Rico rebuilds, an opportunity for the territory to rethink its energy grid that could prove a road map for the continental United States. Drexel University Professor Ahmet Aktan, an infrastructure expert, and Dave Weaver, an engineer and vice president of technical services at Philadelphia-based utility PECO, shared these takeaways from Puerto Rico’s energy meltdown.

Governments Need to Wake Up: It’s easy to pile on Puerto Rican officials for failing to fund upgrades to the island's electric utility, but Aktan said lawmakers stateside don’t do much to protect and improve infrastructure in places like Philadelphia, either. For years, some politicians, including former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have called for increases to infrastructure spending -- on streets, on power grids, on water systems -- but their calls have mostly fallen on deaf ears. This is despite the fact that ...

Everything Is Connected to the Grid: The lack of electrical power is life threatening, not because the lamp doesn’t turn on, but because the refrigerator shuts down, the sewage system stops working, the water distribution facilities stop pumping. During Hurricane Irma earlier this month, for example, sewer systems in some Florida and Georgia communities shut down during power outages. Analyzing the interconnectivity of public systems has led to the belief that there must be ...

Safeguards Against Being Too “Public”: PECO is owned by Exelon, a Chicago-based corporation traded on Wall Street that aims to make a profit. Utility executives say this incentivizes the utility to invest in its power grid, and continually improve reliability, customer experience and technology. PECO is in the midst of a five-year, $274 million long term improvement plan that is creating a more-resilient and responsive grid for 1.6 million customers in southeastern Pennsylvania -- a good thing for those PECO Pennsylvania customers who remember being without power for 12 days in the wake of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. And better technology can lead to …

More Sustainable, Cleaner Energy: Even in catastrophes, opportunities arise. Aktan believes that Puerto Rico, with the right amount of foresight and aid, can push the reset button on the way it uses and distributes energy. With the destruction of its grid’s distribution system, now could be the time to push more localized solar and wind power generation. PECO is already experimenting with “micro grids,” which could provide increased stability to communities hit by major weather events.

[NATL] In Photos: Total Devastation in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

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