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An EnergyVision for Puerto Rico

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, it plunged the island into a devastating power outage. This NOAA satellite photo shows visible lights in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands before the storm (July 24) and after (October 13). It took two months to restore more than half of normal peak load electricity, as of early-December, almost a third of households are still in the dark.

In May, Acadia Center released EnergyVision 2030: Transitioning to a Low-Emissions Energy System, a comprehensive analysis that demonstrates how seven Northeast states can spur use of market-ready technologies that empower consumers, control energy costs, and advance economic growth while lowering carbon pollution. EnergyVision 2030 presents a practical path to a clean energy future where electricity produced by solar, wind, and other renewable technologies powers our cars and provides efficient heating; where residents and businesses anchor an integrated grid, with power flowing between consumers and among smart appliances and batteries, within energy efficient buildings; and where community energy provides equitable access to renters, low-income ratepayers, and those who cannot site clean energy at their own homes. EnergyVision 2030 is ambitious, optimistic, and achievable.

In September, Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, leaving 3.4 million people without power, clean water, food, or cell phone service. Almost three months later, a third of the island is still in the dark. While officials warn that it will take many more months and many billions of dollars to repair the island’s electricity transmission and distribution system and restore some sort of normalcy, creative thinkers are asking what might be possible if—instead of fast-tracking huge investments in rebuilding Puerto Rico’s troubled, traditional grid— Puerto Rico builds an affordable clean energy system of the future.

This clean energy future would be a significant departure from Puerto Rico’s pre-hurricane energy system, which depended heavily on fossil fuels and resulted in the highest retail electricity prices for American citizens outside of Hawaii. Despite including both the Caribbean’s largest solar farm and its largest wind farm, renewable energy supplied only 2.4% of Puerto Rico’s electricity in 2016. That’s far short of the 2010 Renewable Portfolio Standard (“RPS”) requiring the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (“PREPA”) to get 12% of its electricity from renewable sources starting in 2015, scaling up to 15% by 2020 and 20% by 2035. Missing the RPS target is not PREPA’s only problem. The agency’s debt tops $9 billion, its infrastructure is old and failing, and service is often unreliable. The bottom line is that Puerto Rico was ripe for grid modernization even before Hurricane Maria wiped out the grid.

Weaving strategic grid modernization into emergency response will require sensitivity, and Acadia Center’s EnergyVision lays the foundation for ambitious, achievable reforms anchored by clean energy technologies in four core areas:

Grid Modernization: Advocates on Puerto Rico and the mainland are abuzz with the potential of a modern system of microgrids. These localized grids incorporate renewable generation and battery storage to avoid the need for expensive long-distance transmission and distribution lines, and are more resilient than traditional, centralized grids. The impact of Hurricane Maria bears this out: though the storm took out 80% of transmission lines, it damaged only 10-15% of solar panels. Functioning panels weren’t able to deliver power to the now-destroyed grid, but interconnecting those panels through local microgrids would be particularly useful, especially given Puerto Rico’s terrain of forests and mountains through which it is difficult to maintain power lines. Renewable energy companies have stepped up since the hurricanes: German energy storage manufacturer Sonnen already has six microgrids up and running, with nine more installations planned in coming weeks; Tesla deployed solar and storage to restore power at San Juan’s Children’s Hospital and has announced six new battery projects on two Puerto Rican islands. Taxpayer-funded disaster relief should encourage innovations like these to lend immediate support to traumatized Puerto Ricans and to demonstrate the potential of a smart, clean, modern grid.

Electric Generation: Puerto Rico has ample renewable resources, yet last year, petroleum supplied nearly half of the island’s electricity, and natural gas supplied nearly one-third. Solar power is the fastest source of clean, renewable generation. As of June 2017, Puerto Rico had five utility-scale solar farms with 127 megawatts of capacity, and more than 8,500 customers with nearly 88 megawatts of distributed capacity connected with net metering. Expanding grid-scale and distributed renewable generation to achieve and surpass RPS targets will mitigate high fuel costs, advance energy independence, reduce emissions, and support a more resilient energy system.

Buildings: Energy efficiency and clean building-cooling and water-heating technologies have already provided cost savings and emissions reductions in Puerto Rico. The island utilized funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to weatherize more than 15,000 homes, cutting electricity use by an average of 15%, and to install more than 11,000 solar hot water heaters. As it rebuilds, Puerto Rico should maintain its requirement that all new single-family homes have solar hot water heaters, and also require minimum efficiency standards for homes, municipal, and commercial buildings.

Transportation: Hurricane Maria severely damaged Puerto Rico’s critical transportation infrastructure, including highways, bridges, traffic signals, and fuel stations. Immediate recovery efforts focused on clearing and repairing roads and reopening gas stations to facilitate relief efforts and restore local and regional bus service. Longer term efforts should recognize the potential of electric vehicles and innovations in mobility options to improve transportation efficiency and resiliency, and strive to build a robust network of electric vehicle charging stations.

EnergyVision 2030 calls for a resilient, low-emissions energy system that benefits communities every day, and especially in the face of extreme weather events and volatile global fuel markets. Acadia Center advocates in the Northeast for a consumer-friendly grid, clean distributed generation, and efficient buildings and transportation, but this can and should be pursued everywhere. Puerto Rico needs this critical help now.

Action Guide Identifies Barriers to Community Energy—Resilient Microgrids Could Have Helped Maine Bounce Back from Storm Damage

Of the many economic, energy, and environmental benefits of a clean, modernized community energy system, one might stand out for electric customers across the Northeast right now: resiliency.

More than 1.5 million homes lost power when hurricane-force winds and torrential rain battered New England in late October. In Maine, toppled trees blocked roads, damaged homes and cars, and pulled down power lines, contributing to outages that left nearly two-thirds of the state without power. The emergency response was hardly a picture of resilience: despite the efforts of more than 3,000 state agency and utility workers from 14 states and three Canadian provinces, it took more than a week to restore service statewide.

Neighbors rallied to keep each other warm and fed, but updating the way we plan, manage, and invest in our electric grid would give communities the freedom to do even more. Acadia Center’s Community|EnergyVision Action Guide highlights how communities can create more resilient energy systems by leveraging available technologies to generate, distribute, and use power in a cleaner, more consumer-friendly way. The Action Guide also reveals where current state rules limit—and even prohibit—community action.

New England’s recent and historic wind storm is a stark reminder that obstacles to community energy leave residents vulnerable. Power outages are inconvenient, dangerous, and expensive—and so are the workarounds many municipalities, businesses, and residents turn to during lingering blackouts.

Communities need better, more resilient energy systems, and they deserve the freedom to access and control clean, affordable, local energy. Microgrids are a key component of this clean energy future. These self-contained power systems can combine distributed renewable generation resources with demand optimization and energy storage to serve their immediate geographical area. Microgrids can operate as part of the main electrical grid or go into “island” mode to operate separately from the grid during power outages.

Microgrids improve resiliency because they provide electrical service to a concentrated area and their generation and storage sources can be distributed across that area—with multiple rooftop solar installations, for example. This compact, yet decentralized, approach makes microgrids more rugged overall, reducing their vulnerability to the service disruptions that go along with long-distance transmission and distribution lines.

Microgrids became a focus of many state resiliency plans after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and those on-line in Texas helped keep stores and hospitals open during Hurricane Harvey. Even in good weather, microgrids add value to a community. Vermont’s Stafford Hill solar and storage microgrid not only powers Rutland’s emergency shelter, it yields $380,000-$700,000 annually in energy storage benefits and land-lease fees.

Maine communities are ripe for microgrids, yet there is no clear authority for municipalities to act. Acadia Center’s Community|EnergyVision Action Guide notes that communities would have a clearer path if policymakers established specific rules enabling developers and stakeholders to collaborate on microgrids that enable local clean energy generation, use distributed energy storage, and improve control over energy consumption; add resilient capacity and stability to the larger grid; and operate independently at critical times.

When legislators return to Augusta in January, they will consider An Act to Enable Municipalities Working with Utilities to Establish Microgrids (LD 257). There was an informational meeting on the bill last month—just days before the majority of Mainers lost power—and there will be public hearings and work sessions in early 2018. Please join Acadia Center in sharing the impact of an outdated, inflexible power grid and demanding expanded community energy options to enhance resiliency.

Massachusetts bill would compel utilities to consider non-wires alternatives

Peter Shattuck, Massachusetts director for the Acadia Center and the Alliance for Clean Energy Solutions, which is supporting the bill, told Microgrid Knowledge that declining cost of solar and efficiency, and the state’s growing interesting battery storage, are fueling an interest in modernization.

“We’re glad to see utilities entering the energy storage market. Eversource, in their rate case, has a significant $100 million of storage proposed across four projects. But there is a clearly a big market for behind-the-meter storage as well,” Shattuck said.

Read the full article from Utility Dive here.