Two weeks ago, battery makers Tesla and Sonnen pledged to build microgrids and deliver batteries to hospitals and other critical infrastructure in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which wiped out power to nearly all of the island’s electricity customers. Today, Tesla tweeted that Hospital del Niño, a children’s hospital in Puerto Rico, was the “first of many solar+storage projects going live.” (The company didn't immediately respond to requests for comments on the size of the installation or how much it cost.)
But Tesla is not the only company working on putting renewable energy in Puerto Rico. In an e-mail to Ars, Sonnen spokesperson Michelle Mapel said that the company's first microgrid in Puerto Rico would go live sometime next week, with three to five Sonnen microgrids serving communities on the island by mid-November.
Microgrids have often been cited as infrastructure to improve electric resiliency. They tend to be small, community-based systems that run on solar power, batteries, wind, or diesel generators, which can be quickly repaired and linked up to other microgrids in case of failure. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, New York set aside
. Similarly, Puerto Rico seems enthusiastic to place microgrids where more traditional energy was once served.
, Puerto Rico officials have talked not only to Tesla and Sonnen, but also to Arensis and Sunnova to discuss improving and privatizing parts of the commonwealth's public grid.
But that enthusiasm for ambitious projects was overshadowed by the admission from Puerto Rico’s governor on Thursday that only 20 percent of the island’s connected residents have power. The news comes more than a month out from the devastating hurricane’s landfall.
While microgrid companies are eager to show off their plans for the island, Puerto Rico residents are growing increasingly impatient, hoping for any electricity, whether it's low-carbon or not.
According to the Associated Press, Puerto Rico’s state-owned power company PREPA (short for Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) filed for bankruptcy in July, just before the hurricane hit. Even before the disaster, Puerto Ricans paid some of the highest prices for electricity in the US and still dealt with an unreliable, fossil fuel-heavy grid. When Maria hit the island, PREPA had “put off badly needed maintenance and had just finished dealing with outages from Hurricane Irma in early September,” the AP wrote. In addition, the path of the hurricane was unlucky for Puerto Rico. As the AP explained:
Most of Puerto Rico’s generating capacity is along the southern coast and most consumption is in the north around San Juan, with steel and aluminum transmission towers up to 90 feet (27 meters) tall running through the mountains in the middle. At least 10 towers fell along the most important transmission line that runs to the capital, entangling it with a secondary one that runs parallel and that lost about two dozen towers in a hard-to-reach area in the center of the island.
The Puerto Rican government has promised its citizens that 95 percent of PREPA's customers will have power again by December 31, but some have doubts.
Meanwhile, the first company hired to help PREPA fix its power grid has come under scrutiny by the House Committee on Natural Resources. The two-person, Montana-based firm, Whitefish Energy, was founded just two years ago and is based in Whitefish, Montana, the same town Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from, according to reporting from The New York Times. The company won a $300 million contract to help PREPA repair 100 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. A report from Buzzfeed quoted the company as saying it provided expertise in mountainside transmission repair that other companies from the southeast region of the US couldn’t provide. Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski counters that he was at the right place at the right time, and PREPA denies any suggestions of cronyism through the US government.
According to The New York Times, “in an interview on Oct. 10, Mr. Techmanski said he got the job because he was the first to show up on the island—on Sept. 26, six days after the storm hit—and because he didn’t ask for any payment in advance." PREPA’s CEO, Ricardo Ramos, insisted that the utility evaluated “five or six” other offers before settling on Whitefish’s.
Today an Oklahoma City-based contractor called Mammoth Energy Services also signed a $200 million contract deal with PREPA to rebuild transmission lines serving the island.