Puerto Rico’s Grid Is Ruined. The Solar Industry Wants to Help

Can the industry marshal resources to the disaster-stricken island?

Photo Credit: The National Guard/Flickr

It’s been over a week since Maria tore through Puerto Rico, leaving a tangle of transmission lines in its wake. The hurricane knocked out all of the island’s electricity, just weeks after Irma took down electricity for 1 million people. Thousands still hadn’t had their electricity restored when the second storm arrived. 

Since Maria made landfall on the island, President Trump has been criticizing the National Football League and waffling on a waiver of the Jones Act, which would allow foreign vessels to bring aid to Puerto Rico. He finally lifted shipping restrictions yesterday.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground is dire. Supplies that have arrived are reportedly sitting on the docks. FEMA has said 42 percent of people are without drinkable water, and nearly everyone still lacks electricity access. 

With the U.S. government moving slowly, private citizens have taken up their own efforts. That includes some players in clean energy.

This week, Tesla announced it would send Powerwall storage packs to help restore power. And on Friday, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) posted an announcement about its effort to coordinate with solar companies to donate equipment and installation services. 

“That’s what is different today than during the Haiti earthquake, or some other disasters recently. The solar industry is just much larger,” said Jigar Shah, president of Generate Capital. “We have the ability to do things we weren’t previously able to do.”

That includes coordinating donations and possible development and installation when the time is right.

It also includes products for immediate disaster needs. About 40,000 solar lanterns have been shipped from Haiti. About a million lanterns are available around the world that could be sent to the island. According to Shah, portable-solar companies such as Goal Zero are also coordinating donations. 

These fast-response efforts will be part of a long process. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has said power might not be restored for four to six months. If the solar industry wants to shorten that time frame, it’ll take large-scale mobilization of resources and coordination with the U.S. government in a new area: emergency management. 

“The solar industry is still not an expert in how disaster relief occurs,” said Shah. “The first thing is for us to understand the process.” 

But based on the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico, it seems not even the federal government understands the process.

“We need to get our shit together,” said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz in a CBS News interview on Tuesday, referencing the minimal aid so far funneled to the island. 

Many clean energy advocates see the hurricanes as an opportunity to discuss the potential strength of a distributed grid. 

Puerto Rico’s electrical system is made up of thousands of miles of transmission lines, many running across mountainous and wooded terrain. Repairing those lines won't be easy. 

In the event of a giant storm like Maria, microgrids and smaller-scale electricity generation would have made it more difficult to decimate the entire system.

Of the 88 megawatts of distributed solar and 127 megawatts of utility-scale solar generation already installed in Puerto Rico, most systems remain intact, but damaged, according to Shah. (GTM has not verified the health of solar systems in the territory.)

Shah said service providers are now working on repairs and battery deployments to get them up and running quickly. In the case of microgrids, their independence makes it easier to get them in working order.   

“It’s easier to bring all this back up after it’s been down when you have this more localized solution set,” says Shah. “You will have a lot of damage, but all the point sources are independent of each other. It doesn’t take the whole grid down.”

In the case of a storm like Maria, which Shah describes as a “50-mile-wide tornado,” no grid would have been completely resilient. But in the aftermath, when hospitals, shelters, and stores carrying supplies need power in life-or-death situations, microgrids could return power to some areas faster. 

Right now, talk of a new grid powered by renewables is mostly that -- talk.

Solar-industry donations will most likely be small in scale. The effort from SEIA will likely help the industry liaise with FEMA to provide relief, a position the industry has never been in before. 

“If we had a demand for 50,000 solar residential systems in Puerto Rico over the next three months, I don’t know if the solar industry would say, ‘here’s all the personnel and equipment to do that,’” said Shah. “They’re more capable of doing something material than they’ve ever been before, but it’s still on a philanthropically donated basis.”

Listen to Shah and the rest of the Energy Gang talk about Puerto Rico's energy crisis -- and the solar industry response -- on this week's episode.


The threat of extreme weather is becoming an increasingly important calculation for energy markets. Join us for the U.S. Power & Renewables 2017 conference in Austin, Texas this November to meet with top regulators, utility executives and technology leaders dealing with the aftermath of hurricane season, and applying its lessons to the nation as a whole. The two-day conference will include the solar expertise of GTM Research, the wind energy analysis of MAKE, and the broader energy and utilities expertise of Wood Mackenzie.