Renewables: how Puerto Rico could turn a crisis into an opportunity
Many of us these days are horrified at the situation Puerto Rico is currently witnessing. An island with a population of 3.5 million people, it currently has very little electricity or water access.
As officials announced this weekend, after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico could be without grid power for up to six months. This is a serious threat to the stability of both local society and economy. Given the scope of this blog, I did some research on local electricity generation and found some interesting facts.
You would think that as a Caribbean island, most of electricity in Puerto Rico comes from renewables. The reality couldn’t be further from that. As a US territory, the island is really behind with the mainland on its energy transition with renewables barely covering 2.4 percent of consumption. (The CIA World Factbook gives slightly different numbers with renewables having a 3.6 percent share.)
Despite the fact that Puerto Rico does not have any coal, natural gas, or oil reserves, the quasi totality of its electricity is produced by such means. (As per official EIA statistics, almost half of the electricity is still coming from oil. Natural gas covers a third and coal one sixth.) All those fossil fuels thus have to be imported, and this has an impact on both prices and carbon footprint.
As a result, the carbon footprint can be estimated to be around 750 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh. To compare, the US mainland emits around 590 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh. The AWEA blog has an interesting background article on the local electricity situation: electricity prices are twice as high as the US average. This harms the economy in a significant way.
But Puerto Rico can retrieve electricity access quickly, cut its energy costs and lower its carbon footprint significantly in the same time. Switching to renewables could enable a factor ten cut in emissions coming from electricity.
Solar and wind
According to a paper published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2015, Puerto Rico has 840 megawatts of potential wind power and only 120 MW of installed capacity. The island could thus boost by a factor seven its wind capacity. To Solar Magazine, two wind farms supplied nearly two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s renewable generation in 2015; one of them, the 95-megawatt Santa Isabel facility, is the largest wind farm in the Caribbean.
Regarding solar photovoltaic, as per the Global Solar Atlas, solar radiation in Puerto Rico is slightly superior to New York or Houston, TX, with 1,486 kWp per year. The NREL noted that the current installed capacity is a tiny 22 MW while the potential capacity is of 1,100 MW. This means that solar PV could grow by a factor 50. An additional benefit of solar PV: it can be installed within days or weeks, not months.
To conclude on the main renewable energy sources, one can note that fortunately solar thermal is also being used as the NREL notes on its study: ” 11,000 solar water heaters have also been deployed, largely through weatherization programs and a building code that requires mandatory solar water heating. “
If wind and solar could see their capacity grow significantly, other renewables also have significant potential. Traditional hydro has an installed capacity of 102 MW and is already maxing out, but there may be additional potential for in-stream hydro, which can be installed within rivers and closer to consumption.
Biomass, whether coming from agricultural production, food scraps, food or human waste could also bring a lot of natural gas and electricity generation. Medium-sized biodigestors can be containerized and thus be imported and installed very quickly. Even smaller ones can be assembled by people themselves as this article from Puerto Rico shows. All these systems could also improve sanitation significantly as the island doesn’t have water.
Years ago, energy storage via batteries would have proved uneconomical. But as prices have dropped significantly in the past decade (According to BNEF, prices have been halved since 2014 alone), larger Puerto Rican companies and residential buildings could equip themselves very easily and very economically to store the electricity their solar panels generate.
Tying all these – wind turbines, solar panels, biodigestors and energy storage – together would allow the island to have a resilient grid with several micro grids. This would provide several benefits : 1. Save people and businesses significant amounts of money in the next decades, 2. Allow this magnificient island to be ready for when the next hurricane hits and 3. Decrease the threat of climate change by lowering emissions.
Right now Puerto Rico is in hardship. Many neighbouring islands and nations are in similar situation after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. I hope the US Army will soon be sent there to help local populations and deploy the solutions mentioned above. We have seen that now the Pentagon is a firm believer in renewables and energy efficiency. I hope they prove it there too.
Image credits: Flickr, Breezy Baldwin.
San Juan, Puerto Rico.