Sonnen announced the installation of its 10th donated microgrid in Puerto Rico on Thursday. Located at a health clinic in Utuado in the island’s mountainous central region, the clinic will run entirely off-grid using a 10-kilowattsolarsystem from Puerto Rico-based installer Pura Energía and a 16-kilowatt-hour sonnen battery.
More than six months after Hurricane Maria, and with yet another hurricane season approaching, more Puerto Ricans are looking to options outside the traditional grid.
On April 3, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported that it had restored power to 95.8 percent of its customers. But 1,200 FEMA generators still provide power for critical facilities like hospitals, and the plan to privatize PREPA has deepened disagreements over the island’s future power system.
Installers and policymakers are now working to “empower the consumer,” as energy commission chairman José Román Morales said, “to control their own energy future.” And the number of microgrids on the island continues to grow.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which is one of the agencies responsible for power restoration, installed nine temporary microgrids as part of its emergency response. The first were in areas particularly impacted by the storm: the southeast region of the island and the island of Culebra.
According to USACE, one factor under consideration in the placement of microgrids was the estimated time until main grid restoration. Caguas, the region currently that currently has the lowest percentage of customers with power, is in the southeast. Seven of the temporary microgrids remain in place, but USACE said it has no plans to commission more.
Others are viewing microgrids and off-grid systems as a long-term fix.
In March, Sunnova announced that all of its new residential solar systems in Puerto Rico would include battery storage to prepare for future storms. The company said it would also offer customers with existing solar arrays a battery upgrade.
Resilient Power Puerto Rico, a group formed after Hurricane Maria by New Yorkers with ties to the island, recently announced it raised $625,000 of a $2.5 million goal to fund the installation of 100 community microgrids. The initial round will go toward 25 solar-plus-storage microgrids. The group has already installed 15 throughout the island. Just six are grid-tied, although the group said that may change with future projects.
“As we scale up, it’s inevitable that we will have to work more closely with regulators and authorities,” said co-founder Cristina Roig Morris. “Once you start powering up a municipality, they’re going to want those systems to be connected.”
Draft microgrid regulations released by the island’s energy commission in early January did not require systems to connect to PREPA infrastructure.
Román Morales said the rules reflect emergency conditions, allowing customers to strike out on their own without dependence on the utility. He placed an emphasis on consumer empowerment, hinting at the tensions currently clawing at Puerto Rico’s recovery process. He acknowledged that formal regulations for off-grid systems could impact PREPA’s business, but only time will tell.
“The microgrid rules will affect the status quo, will empower people, and will disrupt the energy industry right now,” he said. “We will still have to wait and see if the people choose to reconnect.”
Since the release of the draft rules, Román Morales said the commission has been synthesizing many public comments. Above all, he said the commission aimed to make the rules understandable and accessible for consumers and developers, although he declined to share specific details.
The final regulations should be released in the next two weeks.
Blue Planet Energy, a two-year-old storage company that specializes in off-grid systems, echoed Román Morales’s message of empowerment. So far the company has installed just three systems on the island, with equipment currently on the island to construct about a dozen more, but it said it wants to ensure customers have options.
“We’re really trying to promote the idea of grid independence and using the grid for backup as opposed to saying, ‘My batteries are backup,’” said COO Chris Johnson.
The company’s model aims to offer consumers more agency in the utility-customer relationship.
“We’re here to empower people and make sure they don’t feel like they’re victim to this utility game we’ve all been playing for a long time,” said Kyle Bolger, Blue Planet Energy’s vice president of engineering. “I don’t think the whole world should be little off-grid systems, but we do want to pump our chest a little bit and exercise our strength and get the utility to say, ‘Oh man, if we don’t play nice, we’re going to lose customers.’ Which they’ve never had to seriously face before.”
Recently, PREPA has lost a lot of customers. The island’s government estimates that about 200,000 people will have left Puerto Rico for the mainland by the end of this year, adding to the half million who left in the last 10 years.
The rise of microgrids only adds to the existential crisis currently facing the utility. It’s also facing privatization and a lawsuit from the energy commission arguing that the board has overstepped its authority in trying to manage the utility.
Román Morales said he’s working to defend the public interest of Puerto Ricans, a mandate he feels is tied to the microgrid regulations.
While there’s currently a lot of interest in microgrids, he does wonder if they’ll remain under consideration as a widespread solution once more people get power and return to “some level of normalcy.”
But private players, who are still building up their installation pipelines, are confident that it’s a lasting concept.
“We’re now closer to the next hurricane season than we are to when Maria [happened],” said Johnson. “We know that the work is going to continue.”