Puerto Rico’s power grid fails again. What innovations could help?

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When Hurricane Fiona recently hit Puerto Rico, the storm brought the wind, the water and major flooding on the island. Local authorities are still assessing the damage but, so far, we know that some people have died, others have lost their homes and almost everyone has lost power.

Unfortunately we have been here before.

After Hurricane Maria in 2017, billions of federal dollars went to Puerto Rico, a US territory. They were supposed to fix and update the power grid.

And yet, here we are again.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Julio López Varona, the advocacy group’s co-head of campaigns Center for People’s Democracy. She asked him if the money that was supposed to fix the network had actually been used for anything. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Julio Lopez Varona: He does not have. You know, when it comes to the fact that Puerto Rico has a very strong sun that shines every day. And there hasn’t been, like, a concerted effort to think about, like, how do we put solar panels on every person’s roof? For example, how do you like moving to microgrids instead of a centralized network? Because if there’s one thing that happens in one part of the grid, the whole grid collapses, which is exactly what happened when Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico a few days ago .

Kimberly Adams: I should mention that you are in San Juan right now and can contact us because you have solar panels and you did not lose power in this storm. How common is your setup in Puerto Rico?

Lopez Varona: I would say around 10% of the urbanization currently has solar panels. And that is the problem of climate change. This is a problem with what we see in Puerto Rico. These are the black and brown people, the people most directly affected, the people who are struggling for historical reasons. And sadly, they’re not the ones sharing their stories, as they need right now so people know what’s going on in Puerto Rico and we can hopefully build a better system for the future.

Adam: What new technological solutions could be deployed to prevent a power grid outage in Puerto Rico, like the one that occurred after this last hurricane, in the future?

Lopez Varona: One of the things that people have done is they’ve not just used solar power, but they’ve combined solar power in their communities, which means they’ve done solar panels that are connected to many communities. In Adjuntas we have Casa Pueblo, who piloted this amazing program which actually connects a large part of the community to solar programs. So using the sun in that way is one of the ways we think about it, and it’s very technology dependent. There are similar opportunities around hydroelectricity, and this is happening in some cases in Puerto Rico, but most of the effort has really been focused on solar power and, ironically, natural gas, which for many of us, we think that’s not the case, like, a long-term solution to dealing with climate change and, like, creating renewable energy.

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