The Solar and Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico is claiming a victory for grid resilience after the Caribbean island installed thousands of solar batteries in the wake of a devastating hurricane in 2017. But liquefied natural gas is still very much on the agenda for the local utility.
The association’s chief policy officer, Javier Rúa-Jovet, calls the network of 55,000 rooftop solar batteries the “largest renewable peaker plant in the world”.
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The installations put Puerto Rico “at a pivotal moment, sitting on a massive virtual power plant, or VPP, an existing and growing network of solar-powered storage units that can be dispatched in unison to share power when most needed, like at peak power demand hours,” Rúa-Jovet writes, in a contributed post for Utility Dive. “It’s a clean, island-wide, resilient power generator that could save thousands of lives and dollars while preventing blackouts small and large.”
Puerto Rico faced a nearly year-long blackout after Hurricane María ravaged the country nearly five years ago, partly because the Trump White House openly favoured hurricane aid to Texas over an unincorporated territory away from the U.S. mainland.
Eventually, “forward-looking, pro-renewables, bipartisan local legislative reforms and regulatory actions were enacted, which set the framework to achieve 40% generation from renewables by 2025 and 100% by 2050,” Rúa-Jovet writes. “But since then, virtually all new investment in renewables (fundamentally distributed solar plus storage) has come not from government—but non-profits, private donations, and most importantly, Puerto Ricans themselves, aided by new and beneficial private financing options.”
The shift took the form of 55,000 rooftop solar batteries, with the total count now increasing by 2,000 per month. “These families and small businesses are now individually protected during blackouts, but they could also help all other consumers via their stored energy,” Rúa-Jovet writes. “These VPPs could be mitigating blackouts today, without firing up dirty and expensive government-run fossil peaker plants.”
But he says the island’s two established electricity providers, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and transmission and distribution provider LUMA, are holding up the work, on the belief or pretext that the whole grid must be overhauled to make virtual power plants possible. “In reality, no new infrastructure is needed for a basic VPP to be put to use today, and in any case, the necessary technology and software is already built into commercially available batteries from companies like Tesla, Enphase, SolarEdge, and others.”
With the local regulator already calling for an operational VPP as soon as possible, he adds, “all that’s left to do is to flip the switch.”
But a separate new report points to a liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan as an example of how continued fossil infrastructure investment is undermining the transition.
“Nestled in the bay not far from San Juan’s iconic citadel, the terminal is owned and operated by New Fortress Energy, a New York City-based gas company,” Canary Media writes. “Tanker ships deliver LNG to the terminal, which supplies gas for the city’s main power plant and Puerto Rico’s industrial facilities.”
But the project is controversial: it opened without regulatory approval from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, lost a lawsuit accusing FERC of “arbitrary and capricious decision-making” for mandating a retroactive review, and is still operating while the review plays out.
So far, despite the 40% by 2025 target—a drastic increase from the 5% renewable generation the island produces today—“Puerto Rico does seem poised to ramp up gas consumption,” Canary Media states. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to begin dredging work this fall to deepen the shipping channel in San Juan Bay to allow a dramatic increase in supply. And PREPA is pushing gas as a cheaper, cleaner alternative to the oil it currently uses in its aging power plants.
But the community is pinning its hopes on the FERC review. Northern Puerto Rico pastor Sary N. Rosario Ferreira, a member of El Puente’s Latino Climate Action Network, called the June 14 court ruling “a relief” that will “help prevent future companies like New Fortress Energy from operating without any oversight and permits.”
The ruling “motivates us to continue demanding ecojustice for our communities,” she added, in a statement released by environmental law non-profit Earthjustice.
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