Lessons storm-prone cities can learn from Puerto Rico (think microgrids)

Thu, 2017-11-30 17:14 -- Doug Peeples

The catastrophic damage and humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in September was the latest in a disastrous string of severe storms that have made 2017 the most active hurricane season since 2005, a season that also included Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. In addition to loss of life early estimates say the U.S. experienced more than $200 billion in damage. And those losses have focused more attention on electric grid resilience and protection, as they should. For cities prone to severe storms, the comments below from the DOE's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker are worth noting. — Doug Peeples

Assistant Secretary Walker spent two weeks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands coordinating recovery work with government officials, utilities, agencies and others.

The work is challenging for a variety of reasons. When Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island on September 20 it took out almost electric power. Mountainous terrain and the difficulties inherent in dispatching repair crews and equipment, he said, is more difficult in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) than it is on the mainland.

But Walker also said he saw successes and opportunities to make their grids more resilient against storms. "Those possibilities include modern relay protection of the key substations, predictive modeling and improved sensing capabilities, and hardened control devices," he said. Moving substations to areas where flooding is less likely and bringing in distributed energy were among other possibilities.

And microgrids
Microgrids are used in communities, business parks, campuses, healthcare facilities and other locations to provide emergency backup power when the primary electric grid is down. They can remain connected to the primary grid but can disconnect from it when disruptions occur. And DOE sees microgrids as part of the solution for Puerto Rico and the USVI's grid resilience.

"There are also opportunities in the area of microgrids. We've identified 200 key locations for potential microgrids on Puerto Rico, such as water treatment plants and hospitals. If fully implemented, this would represent a total of 11MW." DOE also is investigating 400 more possible locations.

While there is an ongoing argument over when microgrids will be ready to go mainstream, that hasn't stopped electric utilities like Oncor. Council Lead Partner S&C Electric was one of the companies that built an advanced microgrid for the major utility two years ago. And microgrids are frequently a component of energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades at military bases to help protect critical infrastructure and operations.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.