In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands are making new movements for island power grids that would rely on renewable energy.
Many island countries have been moving toward renewable energy for years. CARICOM, an association of 20 Caribbean countries, has made a goal for energy sources to be 47% renewable by 2027.
Renewable energy that’s developed using multiple power grids rather than a centralized power grid would help to increase resilience after hurricanes.
“For the most part, these island grids were completely devastated,” said Chris Burgess, the director of projects for the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Island Energy Program. “And it will be four to six months before most of them can power their islands completely again.”
To compare numbers, private industry employers in the U.S. reported up to 3.0 million workplace injuries over the course of 2013. Over the course of a single weekend, Hurricane Maria left up to 3.4 million people without power in Puerto Rico.
According to The Washington Post, the Caribbean islands have had difficulties with energy in the past. Centralized power plants that provide energy for the islands have been powered by fossil fuels.
These fossil fuels are infamous for their detrimental impact on the environment. For instance, up to 17% of everything printed is considered waste. Fossil fuel combustion waste is considered hazardous waste. Yet, these fossil fuels also leave a detrimental impact on the island economies, not just the environment.
Caribbean islands aren’t equipped with their own energy sources for fossil fuels. Materials must be imported. Importing fossil fuels can be highly expensive, which creates highly expensive electric bills for homeowners; the lighting within a house accounts for a total of 7% to 10% of that home’s used energy.
“[Caribbean countries] have energy prices which are some of the highest in the world,” said Tom Rogers, an expert in renewable energy at Coventry University. “And that has a massive economic impact, especially as a lot of these islands’ economic dependence is on tourism, which introduces a high energy demand for their hotels, in particular from air conditioning loads.”
The state of Florida, which has a tropical climate, not unlike the Caribbean islands, uses up to four times the national average amount of energy for air conditioning. This amount of energy needed to maintain the Caribbean’s tourism makes the condition of a country’s power grid that much more vulnerable to hurricanes.
By using multiple power grids that utilize renewable energy, the islands may be able to sustain their power without fear of grid failure. What makes the renewable energy system that much more attractive is the winds in the Caribbean are highly predictable. The amount of sun the islands receive make the area perfect for solar power systems.
Other possible energy solutions have included the use of liquefied natural gas, a suggestion made by GTM Research. GTM reports that the economic choice for islands would be to exchange fossil fuels for liquefied natural gas.
Jamaica has already swapped its diesel power plants for liquefied natural gas. Kauai, in Hawaii, has also chosen to combine solar power with battery storage. Yet, according to The Washington Post, the use of natural gas wouldn’t necessarily assist the Caribbean islands in the aftermath of a hurricane. Natural gas would be cheaper, but it would still be powering a centralized power plant which may be more vulnerable to a natural disaster.
“A microgrid’s multiple generation sources and ability to isolate itself from the larger network during an outage on the central grid ensure highly reliable power,” reports the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.
It isn’t that a solar-powered microgrid would be impervious to hurricanes. But their reliability in the aftermath of such as storm is that much more dependable than that of a centralized power system.
“It’s like New Age Christmas lights,” said Burgess. “You lose a bulb here and there, but you don’t lose all of them.”
Photo: GERALD HERBERT/AP