Hurricanes may Prompt a Rebuilding of the Island Energy Landscape

by Anna Gretz
September 27, 2017
Sustainability

Right now, the island of Puerto Rico has no power. It has been a week.

Have you ever been without power for a week? The consequences are disastrous.

After a week without power, food is running short, clean water is scarce, and those in dire need of a hospital are finding medical facilities that are crippled by the lack of electricity. Generators were in widespread use, but they run on fuel, and fuel supplies are about to run dry as well. That means no air conditioning, no refrigeration, no medical equipment… and total darkness.

Puerto Rico is in crisis mode, with 3 million Americans anxiously dreading the dark days ahead… But every day, the sun rises, offering free, clean energy, ready to be harnessed.

Roosevelt Skerrit is the Prime Minister of Dominica, another island devastated by Hurricane Maria. Just days ago, he came before the United Nations General Assembly in New York to plead for help. His was a plea for the installation of clean energy.

Tom Haggerty, a senior analyst in global solar markets at GreenTech Media Research, thinks this is the right ask.

“There are many more options for alternatives to oil products than there were even four or five years ago, and at competitive prices, Haggerty says. Part of the desperation felt by many of the hardest-hit islands has to do with their dependence on oil, which can be difficult to replentish post-disaster. Solar power, however, is not.

As soon as the clouds clear, the island is literally covered in energy.

It may take a humanitarian crisis like the aftermath of Maria to motivate a major change in the way islands… and mainlands, think about energy.

It all comes down to resilience.

Resilience is toughness; the ability to recover quickly after taking a hit. When it comes to energy, resilience means the capacity of a power source to sustain a disaster, on a large or small scale. Resilience means that you are protected from the unexpected blackouts that result from the increasingly unruly weather. It means you don’t have to worry about losing heat when it’s freezing, or air conditioning when the heat is unbearable. Resilient power is essential and life-sustaining, and key for preparing new homes and businesses for what the future has in store.

The power grid, as it stands, is pretty vulnerable. Weather related events cause about 70% of all power outages, including the weight of ice storms, heavy winds, and lightning strikes. Severe weather can hit anytime, anywhere, and climate experts have predicted that the unpredictable nature of nature will continue, with precipitation levels fluctuating greatly over the next decade and beyond. This isn’t great news for the grid.

Natural disasters pose a direct threat to electrical lines, but the power demanded by homes and businesses during severe weather put heavy strain on the grid itself. The high demand of electricity to power air conditioning during heat waves, for example, has overloaded the grid and caused widespread shortages, especially in the last few decades as homes depend more and more on high levels of electricity. This is where the Catch-22 comes into light: the more we rely on electricity, the greater strain we put on the grid, the higher likelihood of grid failure.

Growing demand, unforeseen disaster, and even attack could render the electrical grid useless at any point. Thinking about the potentially devastating effects of a long-term power outage makes it crystal clear why resilience should be a top priority.

How do we secure resilient power?

More and more utilities are looking to diversify their power sources, and tap into renewable energy in the form of hydro and solar-sourced power. Utilities can also deploy energy storage units to turn the intermittent electricity sources of the water and the sun into stable, consistent powerhouses. A utility-scale transformation makes the most sense for islands, like Puerto Rico--especially ones found frequently in the wake of massive storms during hurricane season.

Utility companies, however, are often slow to change, and not everyone wants to wait. For those who find themselves dependent on an inconsistent, independable power company, it may be time to look into building up your own energy security.

The key to crafting independent resilience stems from anticipating vulnerabilities, and making sure each home or community is prepared. Most of the time, being prepared means simply investing in an off-grid power source, and a way to store the energy you generate.

Finding a power source independent from your power company:

Solar panels are attractive because of their long life and minimal maintenance required. Once installed, solar panels usually last over 25 years, generating electricity directly from sunlight. Awesome, right? And completely off-grid.

Most households install photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of their house, where nothing can block them from the sun. When the sun hits the panel, cells made up of silicon semiconductors collect the energy, creating an electrical direct current. This direct current, when passed through an inverter, is converted into an alternating current, which is what your home uses. Generating electricity from solar panels provides you with a reliable, resilient energy source that isn’t vulnerable to high demand or cyber attack. It is, however, intermittent. Meaning, the sun does go down. This is where energy storage comes in.

  1. Storing energy in a home battery:

In order to truly break ties from the power grid, you need a way to store the electricity your solar panels generate during the day, so you can use it at night. Home batteries do just that. A home battery is like a power reservoir. Water reservoirs continuously provide water to overcome the intermittency of natural water flows. Home batteries ensure continuous power to an off-grid home, overcoming the intermittency of natural solar flows. With a home battery, your house can have off-grid energy, even when the sun isn’t shining.

Most home batteries on the market today are wall-mounted, indoor or outdoor systems with quiet, unobtrusive operation. Unlike gas-powered generators, they don’t need to be moved into place for operation, or refueled. With solar home batteries, there are no noxious fumes or obnoxious noise. You won’t even notice it’s there… until disaster strikes, and you’re free from the stress of grid failure.

The combination of solar panels and home batteries provide households with the essential resources of resilient power. As builders start projects with the future of energy in mind, resilient power can be built right into any new home with just these two easy steps. The solution is pretty simple.

The Cost of Resilience

Some customers are intimidated by the up-front cost of installing solar power systems and home battery storage. We’ve got good news there. A lot of good news. Because policy-makers are putting increasing value on renewable energy initiatives, there are tax credits available for new solar installations. Individual states have individual programs for customers generating their own power, like California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), that can also help offset costs.

It’s also really important to consider the cost of not having a resilience option. For businesses, these costs are easily seen and quantified, like lost/spoiled inventory, and lost revenue from a closed facility. In residential cases, things get personal. Not only could you lose a fridge full of food and the ability to heat and cool your home, many people need electricity to sustain communication and working remotely. Others rely on electricity to power life-sustaining medical equipment. There’s a myriad of important reasons to make resilience a priority both for businesses and households.

Sustainability and Resilience Together

The case for sustainability is already strong, and getting stronger. Growing environmental concerns have spurred government incentives, making sustainable design more financially viable. Consumers are also demanding more intentional, sustainable planning in housing projects, driving the sustainable building market forward. This is really good stuff. But as we create more building designs with the future in mind, it’s important to keep resilience in mind too.

Preparing for the future means thinking about protecting new, environmentally sustainable projects from the threat of unexpected disaster, and the cost of unreliable power. Homes that don’t have a way to deal with the growing natural and unnatural threats on grid-connected power are setting themselves up for failure. Power failure. This year, a line of hurricanes showed the country the devastating effects of prolonged power outages. Exposure to extreme hot or cold temperatures, food poisoning, contaminated water, and a shortage of life-essential supplies were just the beginning of the difficulties faced by those without resilient power. The blackout aftermath of these crisis cost both millions of dollars, and human lives. These horrible results, which added to the already overwhelming destruction of the storms itself, could have been avoided with resilience plans like solar panels and home batteries.

It’s time to re-think our current power systems, and re-build a more distributed, resilient energy future before the next disaster strikes.