October 23, 2018

As Hurricane Michael damages the Southeast, Puerto Rico provides lessons on resilient power

By Lewis Milford

Between Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria last year—and Florence just a few weeks ago—the last year has been marked by several one-in-a-thousand-year disasters. Now, another powerful storm, Michael, has inflicted devastation in the Southeast.

These storms caused tremendous destruction and harm: Millions of people lost electric power and widespread death and suffering transpired, particularly devastating the already sick and vulnerable who had less means to rebound after the storms.

The impacts of Florence subsequently left more than 1 million people in the Carolinas without power at one time or another this summer. Eight days after the hurricane, over 100,000 customers in the Carolinas still had no electricity. An older woman at the Eastbrook apartments in Wilmington, N.C. was without power for five days in the wake of Florence, worrying how to keep her insulin cool without refrigeration. “I think I would die in here without any air,” she told a reporter. In another public housing building in Wilmington, the city lights blinked on and off four days after the storm hit. “All the projects don’t have lights,” one resident told the press.

As each natural disaster brings devastation, the aftermath provides opportunities to build on innovations undertaken and lessons learned elsewhere. Notwithstanding the terrible impacts that Maria inflicted on Puerto Rico, the island’s recovery provides a useful roadmap for leaders in the Southeast today.

Puerto Rico’s plan for coping with outages

A year of power outages in Puerto Rico produced a historic case study in human misery, with almost 3,000 deaths due in part to the lack of power for home health care equipment and refrigeration of medications, and from outages in hospitals and clinics.

Recently, however, Puerto Rico has taken steps to avoid future such catastrophes.

For one, the island has installed 10,000 solar and storage systems on hospitals, medical clinics, schools, community centers, homes, and local businesses so that local people need not suffer without electricity the next time the main power grid goes down. Notably, no state on the mainland has installed that many solar and storage systems. The industry says it will never install another solar stand-alone solar system without batteries.

But the island is not satisfied with that progress. It wants to get more systems to the entire island’s population.

Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery Action Plan

The Puerto Rican government recently released a draft “Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery Action Plandetailing how it intends to use the next tranche of $8.2 billion in federal recovery (Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief (CBDG-DR)) funding. It’s a plan worth praising, a model for how the Carolinas might rebuild better for the next storm.

Among the proposals in the draft “Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery Action Plan” are three excellent new resilient power strategies:

  • A $436 million program for solar and storage incentives for resilient energy and water installations. These include “installation of photovoltaic systems and battery storage at capacities aligned with household needs, including the consideration of critical medical needs.” These incentives will “prioritize low-income, elderly applicants” and “communities without electrical power,” and the incentives will also be available for businesses and nonprofits.
  • A $75 million program for Community Resilience Centers. This funding will be available to reconstruct or build new community resiliency hubs around the island, to support “critical functions and increasing social resilience…to provide life-saving harborage during emergency events and serve community needs year-round.”
  • A $100 million revolving loan fund to support contractors facing credit risks from the disaster. The plan would give contractors, including the renewable industry, with a new source of capital to provide liquidity in a crisis.

The money is needed to restore critical public services, the draft plan notes:

While the Island begins the larger process of transforming the power grid and distribution systems…residents must receive assurance that they can avoid displacement or threats to health and safety caused by interruptions to power service.

Note: Clean Energy Group proposed a similar incentive plan for Puerto Rico this summer.

When approved by the federal government—likely this fall—Puerto Rico’s funding plan will be the largest solar and storage incentive for energy resiliency in any state level entity in the country.

For the most part, Puerto Ricans are not utilizing clean energy primarily for environmental or climate reasons, but mainly to save money and their own lives. Because central power plans are often shut down during severe weather events, resilient power in the form of solar and battery storage systems is essential in places that are prone to disasters and power outages. (Most of the Carolinas’ solar systems continued to function reasonably well once Florence passed.)

As the Southeast moves into a recovery phase post-hurricanes Florence and Michael, its states and cities should look to elements of Puerto Rico’s plan as a model for future disaster recovery spending on energy resiliency:

  1. The Southeast’s monopoly utilities that own the power systems should loosen their regulatory grip to give customers more market choice to install their own solar and storage systems.
  2. Cities and towns should take a hard look at their critical public facilities that lost power—fire, police, schools, shelters, hospitals, and senior centers—and invest in new solar and storage systems.
  3. Programs should focus on the most vulnerable populations—including elderly, poor, and disabled residents—who need protection the most.
  4. Southeastern states should adopt new state-level policies and incentives to support these systems, to prevent power outages but also to lower crippling utility demand charges that solar and battery storage could help to reduce.
  5. The Carolinas should follow Puerto Rico’s plan to use CDBG-DR federal funds to seed solar and storage incentive programs, and not rebuild the fragile power system in the same way that failed.

In its extraordinary drive to rebound from a historic storm, Puerto Rico’s policymakers have staked a new resilient future that their mainland colleagues would do well to follow.

This blog post was originally published by The Brookings Institution. It was also published in Renewable Energy World.

Photo Credit

NOAA, via Flickr

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