Last Wednesday, Hurricane Maria passed over Puerto Rico, bringing 140-mile-per-hour winds, pelting rain and extreme flooding. After the storm moved on, Puerto Rico was left with "apocalyptic devastation" and absolutely no power.
The island’s utility -- already bankrupt before the storm -- says it will be months before electricity is fully restored.
The dire circumstances in Puerto Rico echo similar troubles now enveloping the Caribbean, where hundreds of thousands have been left with no electricity as Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and to some extent, Harvey, pummeled grids this past month, leaving entire islands without electricity.
In the wake of the storm, renewable energy advocates have called for investment in distributed grids to avoid the same situation in the future.
"The tragedy of Hurricane Irma can be a catalyst for government and utility leaders and people of affected countries...to transform destruction into opportunity -- an opportunity to build back better and cleaner through sustainable, resilient power and transportation systems," wrote analysts at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Indeed, the opportunity for standalone solar and storage -- or hybrid liquefied natural gas (LNG) and diesel systems paired with PV and storage -- is getting more economically attractive. According to a new analysis of island markets from GTM Research and Wood Mackenzie, hybrid systems are already beating the cost of diesel, and nearing the cost of LNG.
Although many Caribbean islands are investing in renewables and experimenting with different kinds of microgrids, most still rely on imported fossil fuels. And it’s as yet unclear whether a distributed grid structure in Puerto Rico would have fared any better during such a drastic storm.
The storms did underscore, though, that climate change will impact these island countries disproportionately -- and power grids will be under increasing threat, whatever the energy mix.
“Unfortunately, we had to wait for Irma and Maria to let the world understand what we’ve been saying to them for a long time -- that we are very vulnerable. We are exposed to the ravages of climate change,” said Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, speaking to last week's U.N. Summit. “We need access to resources to build more resilient societies and countries. We have been playing our part, but the extent of the resources required to put in the mitigation systems is beyond us.”
Here’s how the storms impacted grids in islands hit by the hurricanes.
British Caribbean territories: Anguilla, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands
Irma damaged about 90 percent of Anguilla’s power infrastructure. In Turks and Caicos, power was also disrupted, and when Maria rolled through, the island was hit again.
Of the British Caribbean territories affected by the storms, all rely almost solely on diesel. Virgin Group billionaire Richard Branson began a partnership with NRG in 2014 to test a microgrid on his private Necker Island, part of the British Virgin Islands, using wind, solar and storage. The effort is part of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Islands Energy Program. The partners hope the results will demonstrate a cheaper and more resilient way to produce the majority of energy used by islands in the area.
According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, the solar portion of Branson’s microgrid weathered the storm quite well. The utility on Turks and Caicos also reported that its solar project remained on-line throughout the storm.
Montserrat, Anguilla, and Turks and Caicos are also members of the Rocky Mountain Institute program, which aims to install 95 megawatts of wind power and mobilize $300 million in funds for island energy projects by 2020.
Those installations could bring changes in infrastructure. In Anguilla, for instance, nearly all of the island’s transmission lines are strung from poles, making them extremely vulnerable to storms. With a small customer base of a few thousand, digging in-ground transmission lines in the island’s difficult soil would be extremely expensive. Thus, a more distributed system could provide a lower-cost option that is easier to fix, argue proponents.
France: Guadeloupe, St. Barts
France’s Caribbean territories are serviced by its large national utility company Électricité de France (EDF). After Irma pummeled islands, the utility sent 50 generators ranging from 60 to 160 kilovolts to those hardest hit, St. Barts and St. Martin. The company has started repairs and is laying new lines.
Days after Irma, having avoided the worst of that storm’s destruction, Guadeloupe was hit by Hurricane Maria. Many residents of nearby islands had traveled there for shelter after Irma. The French government was also using the island to stage aid deliveries to neighboring areas.
Though Maria left tens of thousands there without power, France said power should be fully restored within days. Though over 80 percent of its electricity comes from fossil sources, Guadeloupe has a greater mix of resources than many of its neighbors, with wind, hydropower, geothermal and solar.
The island of St. Martin, divided between French and Dutch territory, bore the brunt of Hurricane Irma. Authorities estimate the storm destroyed 95 percent of buildings there. It might be months before power is fully back on-line.
The island’s electricity system is divided between its two territories, with one line connecting the two for transfer in case of emergencies. The Dutch side is serviced by a government-owned utility, while the French side’s utility is part publicly owned and part government-owned.
Like many islands, electricity comes from imported fossil fuels. The Dutch side of the island is serviced by one power station located in a southern bay and service has been restored to some areas. By 2020, the Dutch side of the island plans to get 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources.
Netherlands Antilles: St. Eustatius and Saba
Saba and St. Eustatius, two islands with respective populations of about 2,000 and 3,183, suffered temporary power outages but are now back on-line.
Irma took out utility poles and power in the north-central coast, an area popular with tourists. President Raul Castro said destinations would be back on-line soon.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Irma brought initial damage to several islands, but Maria took a big toll -- including power damage. Crews are now working to replace poles and assess damage, but Governor Kenneth Mapp says it could take months to restore power. As of Sept. 21, all power was still out aside from hospitals and the airports.
Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua, the larger of this two-island nation, came away mostly unscathed, as did the 55 solar installations on the island. But Barbuda suffered major losses from Irma.
According to Prime Minister Gaston Browne, the entire electric grid was destroyed, as well as 95 percent of the island’s infrastructure. When asked if he thought America would listen to small island nations about climate change, the prime minister put it bluntly: “I don’t think they care.”
Maria hit Dominica hard, destroying all of the island’s agriculture.
“The country is in a daze -- no electricity, no running water -- as a result of uprooted pipes in most communities and definitely no landline or cellphone services on island,” wrote Hartley Henry, principal adviser to the prime minister, in a Sept. 20 update.
According to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), power disruption continues.
St. Kitts and Nevis
According to the CDEMA, Maria tore down electricity poles across the island. Several days later, 80 percent of electricity has been restored.