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A team of researchers from the University of Washington work with residents of Jayuya, Puerto Rico, to install solar panels. ​Photo by Lauren June Kang ​​

Paving the Way

​For the citizens of Jayuya, Puerto Rico, December 15 came and went without fanfare—and in the dark. The U.S. territory's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, had estimated that 95 percent of Puerto Rico would have power back by mid-December following the devastation brought by Hurricane Maria in September. As of press time, that estimate had been extended to February.

Lilo Pozzo, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington, traveled to Jayuya, Puerto Rico, in November with a group of students to assess the impact of extended power outages on public health. Due to its remote, mountainous location, the municipality was still largely without power, and Pozzo's group found that people with respiratory problems were greatly impacted.

"The overall message was that the people with respiratory ailments were in the worst condition because they weren't necessarily evacuated like patients that had more evident health problems, so these people with chronic conditions essentially stayed behind, and they are suffering because they can't power their devices to run therapies," Pozzo explains.

She describes people who are unable to operate their sleep apnea machines or administer asthma treatments. Those who need oxygen now have to wait for tanks to be delivered to the municipality because their standalone oxygen machines could not be charged. The main clinic in town had borrowed a generator after its first one broke down, but can only provide essential services due to concerns of damaging the current generator. All vaccinations and refrigerated medications were spoiled, and citizens with mobility issues or sensitive diets have also been affected.

The city's two major factories have also continued to operate by running generators, which Pozzo says is expensive and inefficient. The townspeople are fearful that it will be difficult for the factories to continue operations if conditions don't improve quickly or if extended power outages following natural disasters become the norm. "If you get hurricanes every year, that's going to change their economic calculations and could potentially create loss of workforce," Pozzo notes.

Despite the dire situations in part of Puerto Rico, power restoration has been slow due to a process fraught with politics and finger pointing between the territory's leaders and the U.S. federal government about the amount of aid that should be provided. However, Puerto Rico's power system was in trouble long before Hurricane Maria hit.

In the days following the territory's brush with Hurricane Irma in early September, which briefly knocked out power for a million people, investors became more vocal about privatizing the territory's struggling power grid. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the largest public utility in the United States, had declared bankruptcy in July, and what little maintenance it was conducting on the island's power grid fizzled. Politicians, energy experts, and other stakeholders acknowledged that the grid might not hold up much longer without serious changes.

And then, two weeks later, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm.

The entire island lost power. Several neighborhoods were destroyed. Most communication networks across the island were crippled. Fresh food and potable water became scarce. The official death toll in Puerto Rico is 64, but estimates suggest more than 1,000 people may have died from the storm and its aftermath. As of early January, 43 percent of the island still had no power, and more than 200,000 citizens have left their darkened communities for the continental United States.

"Puerto Rico is being supported to a large degree by U.S. power companies right now, but that's not sustainable," explains Mark Weatherford, chief cybersecurity strategist at vArmour. "That's why there needs to be a long-term plan here, but it's going to cost money. This is going to be a test of our nation in what we're willing to support to rebuild a state that was already teetering on bankruptcy."

When Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck Texas and Florida last fall, power crews and equipment rolled in from other U.S. states to get the affected regions up and running. But the sheer magnitude of Hurricane Maria's damage to Puerto Rico—and its island location—made it difficult for other U.S. utility companies to lend a hand, says Daniel Kirschen, an engineering professor at the University of Washington and a member of the Clean Energy Institute.

"Typically, utilities are eager to help each other in those situations because of the mindset that this time it's your turn, but the next time it might be mine," Kirschen says. "So these companies are usually very willing to lend crews for repairs. Now, of course, Puerto Rico is an island so it's harder to organize sending crews down there, which on top of all the other problems has made recovery more difficult."

Brian Harrell, CPP, the vice president of security at AlertEnterprise and former director of critical infrastructure protection at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), details what is involved in sending crews to repair Puerto Rico's power grid. Workers and tools must be flown to the island, and heavy equipment such as bucket trucks, transformers, and wires must be transported on ships, which makes the logistics of recovery difficult. Upon arrival, crews must manage downed lines, clear debris from roads, and fully repair the system, he says.

"During the aftermath of such devastation, it is imperative that safety and security is established on the ground," Harrell says. "Before critical infrastructure can be repaired and restored, it's vital that line crews, aid workers, and emergency personnel feel safe while conducting their jobs."

But as each power line is restrung to bring electricity back to the island, experts are pointing out the opportunity to build a more resilient, smarter power grid that will prevent future catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico's infrastructure—but nobody has come up with a plan.

"Given the complete destruction of the island's power system, an opportunity has also presented itself to modernize the way electricity is generated, along with how it can be efficiently transmitted with newer technology," Harrell adds. "A key to preventing this type of destruction from ever happening again will be to build resilience and redundancy into the system."

Stuart McCafferty, president and CEO of GridIntellect and a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) community resilience fellow for electrical power infrastructure, says that Puerto Rico needs to move beyond its reliance on fossil fuels, which are expensive and unsustainable.

McCafferty has been involved in the U.S. smart grid initiative since the beginning, creating the first smart grid maturity model for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and a tool to evaluate a grid's resiliency. He says that while continental U.S. energy providers and government officials embraced the shift towards a smarter grid, there was a disconnect when it came to waterlocked states and territories. Hawaii has paved its own way by working with DOE to develop an unprecedented clean energy initiative in 2008—drawing the majority of the state's energy from renewable resources. Puerto Rico had made no effort to update its infrastructure.

Despite the critical situation in Puerto Rico right now, McCafferty says that the territory has an "incredible opportunity" to build localized power grids that are self-reliant and will not allow downed transmission lines to knock out power for the entire island.

Weatherford agrees. "With an aging infrastructure like that, unfortunately the only thing they will be able to do is rebuild from ground zero," he says. "They need to start over, and the good news is this gives them the opportunity to build a 21st century infrastructure—but it's going to cost a lot of money to do that."

Although PREPA is cash-strapped, McCafferty says money can come from federal grants and labs, venture capital, angel investors, and self-funded corporations. However, a sorely-needed roadmap for the territory's power grid is nowhere in sight, even as legacy infrastructure is being repaired.

"I don't see anyone coming up with any real solutions because of the financial issues and mismanagement of the grid by the operator," McCafferty explains. "Puerto Rico needs a roadmap, and it doesn't even have to be based on any of the financial needs. Once you've got that laid out, then you can start prioritizing and identifying the funding mechanisms to make that happen."

Weatherford suggests setting up temporary generators and small microgrids to keep the lights on for citizens while officials go back to the drawing board to figure out a more resilient solution. "Use temporary money to keep the lights on, and use long-term capital to rebuild the infrastructure," he says. A robust microgrid system, which would keep power outages isolated, paired with renewable energy such as solar and wind power, would be an ideal setup, he says.

Kirschen, who studies how to effectively deploy repair crews to restore critical infrastructure, agrees that redesigning the grid is not going to happen overnight, and crews need to focus on rebuilding what they can of the existing infrastructure.

"We're not at a point where we can generate quite enough power with solar generation to satisfy all the island's needs," Kirschen says. "What I see is a combination of a traditional grid built to a higher standard so it can withstand hurricanes and other disasters, combined with local microgrids designed to survive these hurricanes, so that if the main grid is broken for a while, you can still meet the emergency medical and essential needs until the main grid is repaired. It's particularly important in Puerto Rico because the landscape is rugged and there are some really remote areas that are hard to reach. Therefore repairing the grids to reach those areas will take time, so having one of those small emergency microgrids can be extremely useful."

Pozzo says that a solution for remote areas like Jayuya that would provide critical services during an emergency would be ideal. "You're not restoring power to everybody, but you're at the very least able to maintain the critical needs, storing medicine, providing power to people with medical devices," she says. "I believe that if the town had distributed independent systems—it could be clean energy but could also run on generators that are larger and more effective—they would fare much better, just because they could focus on repairs in a more localized way.

Part of Pozzo's research in Jayuya was quantifying exactly how much energy it would take to meet the critical needs of the entire community to better prepare emergency shelters to handle future power outages.

"We're analyzing ideas where you could invest in providing power to schools that could serve as shelters, so you need to understand how patients are distributed in a community and whether they are able to get to the shelters to have their needs met and how much energy would be necessary to satisfy the number of patients that would go there," she explains. The academic paper on her team's findings will be published in the spring.

"Climate change is happening—we're going to get natural disasters more frequently and more severely, so we have to make sure that our infrastructure is built to a standard that is appropriate for these natural disasters," Kirschen says. ​ ​