Marc Sommer: Puerto Rico Should Go to Micro Grids

With Puerto Rico now altogether without power for what may be several months and its electrical grid woefully inadequate even before Hurricane Maria, it's sheer folly to rebuild a centralized power system based on the same decrepit infrastructure and obsolete architecture. Given the island's mountainous terrain and isolated villages, this catastrophe offers a unique opportunity to launch an altogether different strategy. Instead of going big, go small; instead of concentrating generation in a few huge and prohibitively expensive fossil fueled power plants, turn to the island's most abundant (and free) energy sources -- solar and wind. Renewably powered microgrids are a new, relatively simple and already mature technology that can be deployed in months rather than years and once the initial investment is recovered deliver dramatically lower energy bills. Neighborhood scale, community owned, locally built and financed, microgrids charged by solar arrays with their surplus stored in batteries and other novel forms of energy storage are the best choice to provide uninterrupted power for essential services like communications, medical care, water pumps, refrigeration and the like, all of which are currently disabled by the collapse of Puerto Rico's fossilized power grid. 

Unlike a centralized power grid that can disable an entire region, if a microgrid goes down it instantly decouples from the others in its neighborhood and they continue to function till it comes back online. On an island with remote villages and transmission lines highly vulnerable to hurricane winds, microgrids eliminate the need for and expense of maintaining such towers and wires. As long as the sun shines or the wind blows in your locale and you have enough storage for when they don't, you're self-reliant and able to aid others if they need assistance.

This crucial moment when Puerto Rico's governing officials and federal agencies are assessing the damage to the island's power grid is the time for them to think biggest by thinking small: local production, maintenance and ownership of energy resources, turning to those sources that are renewable, resilient, and endlessly available for the harvesting. No longer need Puerto Rico depend on imported fossil fuels whose delivery and costs are all too easily disrupted by superstorms, centralized mismanagement and the vagaries of international oil markets. An island historically stranded by poverty and political dysfunction can finally take charge of its own destiny and renew its promise by harnessing the vibrant sources of power that are its native birthright.