Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on September 20, leaving the American commonwealth without communication or power and severe lack of food, water and gasoline. Hospitals are running on generators, with fuel dwindling. And without power, water can’t be pumped into homes and businesses.
Her eye spanning the entire island, Hurricane Maria was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Caribbean. The storm wiped out an estimated 80–100 percent of the already aging power grid, according to NPR.
Rebuilding efforts could take years, said Steve Gaines, Chapter Executive of NECA Southeastern Line Constructors. Right now, contractors are waiting for the government to release an aid package so they can start the rebuilding process.
“They need to see if the system is worthy of restoring or if there needs to be a complete rebuild,” he said.
“The devastation in Puerto Rico has set us back nearly 20 to 30 years,” said Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González in an AP article. San Juan’s mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said the island could be without power for up to six months.
The Department of Energy (DOE) is coordinating with Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and a team from New York Power Authority, including drones, to assess the damage. PREPA lost over three-quarters of its infrastructure, and 80 percent of the island’s transmission lines were damaged. To know if the island’s wind farm functions, the grid first has to be restored. Rooftop solar installation company Sunnova, which has customers in Puerto Rico, said replacing solar converters and panels and installing batteries is crucial.
PREPA faced difficulty before Maria—filing for bankruptcy in July, with $9 billion in debt, and calling its infrastructure “degraded and unsafe.” Its power plants have a median age of 44 years, compared with an industry average of 18 years. The island’s power plants rely on outdated oil-fired systems and old transmissions, and residents pay some of the highest utility rates in the country.
The biggest challenge to rebuild the grid is transporting materials and people to the island, Gaines said. All equipment and workers need to be shipped, including power poles, wire, transmission structures and more.
“We have the skills, equipment and knowledge to restore the grid, of how to put it all back together,” Gaines said. “But it falls down to the living conditions. The manpower need sanitary lodging, beds, meals and first aid to keep them safe.”
President of the American Public Power Association Sue Kelley said the association would work with PREPA on securing transportation, fuel, housing, food, water and security for support restoration crews.
Several companies have already stepped in, according to some reports. FEMA and the U.S. Corps of Engineers transported crews to the island. Whitefish Energy received a contract to rebuild the entire power grid. The company dispatched linemen, construction and project managers to rebuild transmission power lines for the water supply dam.
Companies try storm hardening infrastructure, but extreme wind and debris will always cause problems like downed wires or arcs.
“As long as we have power poles in the air with power lines with the infrastructure we have, I don’t ever foresee grid protection from natural disasters,” Gaines said.
Even Elon Musk of Tesla offered alternative energy sources. He sent hundreds of Powerwall battery systems, a residential-size Powerpack, which can be paired with solar panels. Tesla employees are reported to be installing the systems in Puerto Rico.
Judith Enck, former EPA administrator for Region 2, which includes Puerto Rico, has implored Congress to issue a supplemental budget bill to improve the grid. FEMA typically offers disaster relief funding for rebuilding what was damaged, not rethinking it entirely. Instead of repairing an inadequate system, the goal should be a cleaner, more reliable distribution system, Enck said.
This week, in a vote of 353 to 69, the House of Representatives passed a $36.5 billion emergency relief package. President Trump is expected to sign it.
Otis Rolley, the 100 Resilient Cities regional director for North America, hopes the hurricane’s destruction can become a chance to reimagine Puerto Rico’s energy system. A single power plant that often floods isn’t sustainable. Microgrids would be better, he suggests. Greener energy sources could bring new investments, and the island’s abundant sun could make solar power a reliable option.