When Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, it wreaked havoc on the island’s infrastructure and people. The storm also revealed the weaknesses of Puerto Rico’s centralized electrical grid. Today, Puerto Rican engineers, environmentalists, and community members are joining forces to identify and develop new distributed energy solutions.
Innovative Energy in Puerto Rico
Published September 20, 2018
Juan Rosario: This is a moment in which we know there is going to be a paradigm shift. Science right now is on our side.
Onscreen: Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017.
Maria Gonzales: So right now, its been 10 months that we haven’t had electricity. You could hear those winds, you could hear all that rain and everyone was so on edge. We ventured outside and saw horrible destruction. It looked like a horror movie. And that, for me, was… really… I have no words to express what I felt.
Onscreen: All of the island’s 3.5 million residents lost electricity. But not because of power plant failure.
Efraín O’neil-Carrillo: The centralized large power plants that Puerto Rico has, did not suffer really much damage. So, it wasn't a problem of generating the power, it was a matter of transporting that power from the places where it is generated in the large power plants to the places that people needed it. With centralized power, a downed line can cause a blackout.
Onscreen: Maria wiped out 80% of Puerto Rico’s transmission and distribution lines.
O’neil-Carrillo: The impact on the transmission system was so large that basically the blackout lasted for so long, months. Maria really proved that the centralized hierarchical model that has dominated the electric utility industry in Puerto Rico for almost 80 years is insufficient to really deal with the impact hurricanes can have on the island.
Onscreen: The farther electricity needs to travel from its source the more vulnerable the system is.
O’neil-Carrillo: There's a lesson there. We need to look at more local resources.
Onscreen: One possible solution Is to add a system of "microgrids" with hundreds of cities and towns producing their own energy.
O’neil-Carrillo: A microgrid is a geographical area where you have enough electric energy resources so that that area can operate by itself, disconnected from the utility or from other systems. It's also a social approach to deal with the energy challenges in the island collaborating with the grid. Part of your energy would come from the utility but part of your energy would also come from your local resources. If the grid is not there because of a storm or whatever you can still operate as if you were a microgrid.
Onscreen: One place working toward a microgrid is Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas.
Arturo Massol-Deya: Casa Pueblo is a community-based organization up in the mountains. In 1999, Casa Pueblo decided to break the energy dependency and since then, we have been running on solar power. We were able to open the house the day after the hurricane. People were coming here to use our installations as an energy oasis to recharge their equipment, to connect their respiratory equipment, and immediately we were able to deploy a community relief effort.
This is our power plant. No air emissions. No pollution. We're using solar power to generate electricity.
O’neil-Carrillo: That solar panel is made of a special material or materials that basically take the energy from the light of the sun and makes material within that solar panel create that electricity flow.
Massol-Deya: 100 percent of the energy at this point is coming from solar power. Some energy's going back to the batteries but the batteries are already full. We want to export that excess energy to the, to our neighbors. So that's the future.
Onscreen: Deeper in the mountains, residents take relief into their own hands with support from local environmentalists like Juan Rosario.
Rosario: When we came here, we realized that this was a paramount moment in the history of our country. Technology is going to change it. But people are going to drive that technology.
This is one of the places we came at the very beginning, one month after to Maria, to Jayuya. The community started organizing and began talking about the kind of system they wanted to deploy in their own communities. So there were some donations, small systems that people at the beginning they were afraid of doing it by themselves. By the second week, the people were installing systems by themselves.
Gonzalez: They’re installing a solar panel. My father has advanced Gluacoma. My mother has dementia and it's really important for them to have that power. They’ll be able to have the TV on, they’ll have their little lights on, the fridge will be working.
Rosario: We are not talking now about building microgrids from zero, we are talking about how can we start deploying very small systems that will be used in emergencies. And from that microgrids from the community.
O’neil-Carrillo: Maximizing our local energy resources, the sun, the wind, the ocean, when technology is available, but also us, the main player here, the main component is the people.
Rosario: The electrical system of the country is going to build from the ground up, it’s going to be built but the grassroots is going to be built by their own people beat by beat. In the century of climate change, renewable, distributed energy is the kind of technology can that can let to people own their energy.
Massol-Deya: We have to move away from centralized power generation. We are generating electricity at the point of consumption. And that's what we called resiliency.
PRODUCTION CREDITS Digital Producer Michael Rivera Director of Photography Michael Rivera Production Assistance Ana Aceves
Aparna Nathan Editorial Review Julia Cort © WGBH Educational Foundation 2018 MEDIA CREDITS Visuals NOAA
Arturo Massol-Deya Music APM POSTER IMAGE (main image: micro-grid animation) © WGBH Educational Foundation 2018