Some Power Utility Considerations Post-Maria for Puerto Rico

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Hurricane MariaAs I walked to the first floor of my concrete house during the peak of Hurricane Maria the morning of September 20, I felt a vibration in my chest, followed by a low rumbling noise in my ears. I said to my house, ‘Sweetie, hang in there for a bit longer; we can get through this,’ unaware that hurricane-force winds would continue for another eight hours or so.

I’ve been through several hurricanes in Puerto Rico, but Hurricane Maria was the strongest. The challenges we have in Puerto Rico post-Maria have been extensively covered. It will take months to get back to normal and about a decade for the economy to recover. As I write this, nearly two months after Maria made landfall, most folks still are without power. So, I thought about what our industry could do to maximize grid survivability under extreme events.

If given an opportunity, engineers can design poles that can withstand winds of several hundred miles per hour. But there are also landslides, trees falling into power lines, flying debris, flooding, and broken insulators and hardware—the list goes on.  

Some argue in favor of underground distribution. While theoretically it makes sense, the cost would make it prohibitive, as would the island’s geography and geology. PREPA has about 35,000 miles of transmission and distribution (T&D) lines, so we’re looking at many billions of dollars for a utility legally under bankruptcy protection.

Some also have suggested energy storage could have helped the island recover or that microgrids would have saved the day. All great ideas, and there is some truth to it, but if your T&D system collapses, neither technology will fully save the day. PREPA’s generation assets fared very well, but the T&D system was destroyed. You can certainly harden a grid and improve its survivability, but you will never be able to hurricane-proof it.  

So, what steps should utilities, designers, and planners at least consider to improve survivability? Here are a few thoughts:

Overdesign the overhead grid. Deploy poles and electrical hardware able to survive extreme events. That said, even designs to withstand winds up to 150 miles per hour fell short in Puerto Rico.

Ensure proper installation. This is critical; effective inspections must be in place during installation. What purpose does it serve to have an overdesigned grid with improper pole anchoring? Those two go hand in hand.

Adopt preventive and scheduled maintenance programs. As time goes by, the installation ages, so it must be monitored with scheduled and preventative maintenance programs. 

Go underground where possible. Weigh the cost against the potential impact of doing nothing. We are talking about an economic impact that will last at least a decade, so consideration must be taken beyond infrastructure damage. Use technology that, besides providing operational effectiveness and savings, can also help save time during restoration.  

Use self-healing technologies. These will help keep the lights on for as long as possible. Also, once the system starts coming back online, it can help to take some of the workload off system operators by allowing them to concentrate on continued repairs.  

Establish microgrids. The challenge is the practical size limitation of microgrids and managing the aggregate number of them, cybersecurity, and other concerns.

Use energy storage. Such systems provide great flexibility with multiple utility use cases and benefits. If the grid survives, storage can work in island mode, very quickly bringing power to certain sections for a limited amount of time.

Use renewables. Renewables can help get power out to isolated parts of the system, and they can be quickly deployed. My primary concern is the impact on insurance coverage for such projects because there was significant damage to several installations in operation during Hurricane Maria.  

I will certainly never forget my experience during and after Hurricane Maria. Now, as an industry, we must use our significant intellect, talent, and capabilities to help improve the survivability and resiliency of the grid under extreme events such as these. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments below.


Soren Varela

Publication Date

November 20, 2017