But more must be done by policy-makers to unlock the potential of solar+storage and get ready for the next storm
On Sunday, September 18, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico. Virtually all of the U.S. territory’s 1.5 million utility customers lost power. As of this writing, service for many Puerto Ricans has still not been restored. Analysts and political leaders slammed the territory’s utility operator for not doing enough to prepare after the devastation of Hurricane Maria – which hit Puerto Rico almost exactly five years earlier – caused outages which dragged on for months. But for some Puerto Ricans, solar energy has provided a ray of hope.
The government of Puerto Rico has committed to using 100% renewable energy by 2050. However, actual progress in upgrading Puerto Rico’s dated power grid and building out new clean infrastructure in the five years since the Hurricane Maria disaster has been uneven, and intermittent outages have been a continuing problem Many Puerto Rico residents and communities have taken matters into their own hands. There are approximately 50,000 rooftop solar arrays in Puerto Rico today, about ten times as many as there were before Hurricane Maria in 2017, and most of them are connected to battery storage. These arrays have had literally life-saving impact in the wake of Fiona, keeping power on for emergency services and people with conditions that force them to rely on medical equipment.
Unfortunately, the potential of solar in Puerto Rico is being held back by regulatory barriers. The capability exists to utilize the ever-growing number of solar+storage installations as a virtual power plant to supplement the grid, but the government and territory-run utility have dragged their feet in “flipping the switch” to utilize it. Without serious buy-in from policy-makers, the impact of the solar boom in Puerto Rico will remain limited and isolated.
It’s interesting to compare the situation in Puerto Rico with Hawaii. The Aloha State, despite being more remote and lacking in traditional fossil fuel resources, has made great strides in transitioning to clean energy sources, recently shutting down its last coal power plant. The same budgetary problems which led to Puerto Rico’s utility grid being neglected for decades are of course a major obstacle to large-scale clean energy investment. Still, transitioning to sustainable energy sources – and preparing Puerto Rico to withstand the next storm – will require more from the state’s leaders than simply putting ambitious goals on paper. For now, Puerto Rico presents a case study in the positive impact solar can have amid natural disasters – and a case study of solar potential left unrealized.