Puerto Rico’s Homeland Security Readiness: Redesigning the Island’s Power Grid to Improve Its Resiliency

Juan Alicia

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from adversity and return to the previous norm. This term not only describes a quality in people but also the ability of objects or places to recover to their original shape or function. In the case of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), its antiquated infrastructure, its centralized power production and distribution network, and Puerto Rico’s financial bankruptcy all hindered its ability to return to its original functioning state after the destruction by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
PREPA expanded rapidly in the 1970s to support an industrialization move in Puerto Rico, but when in 1996 federal incentives were peeled back, factories left the island, and PREPA lost its customers. The decrease in revenue forced PREPA to borrow funds from international creditors to sustain its operations, but “political patronage, corruption, and inefficiency” led PREPA to a $9 billion deficit. Due to PREPA’s budget deficit and lack of maintenance, electrical cables deteriorated and generators failed. The company, failing to conform to environmental standards and experiencing work-related disabilities and deaths among its workforce, incurred costly fines. Furthermore, power outages were four times more frequent in Puerto Rico than in the continental United States.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria brought 150 mph winds to Puerto Rico and dumped 25 inches of rain while following a northwesterly track and entering the island through the southeast corner—like all other previous hurricanes. Puerto Rico’s power grid was categorically destroyed, with 100 percent of PREPA’s customers without power. High winds massively destroyed the transmission lines and lattice towers running through the mountains of Puerto Rico because 85 percent could not survive a Category 4 hurricane, owing to decades of service neglect. Furthermore, reduced standards had been used to build the remaining 15 percent of the transmission lines in Puerto Rico; then again, almost all power lines were already “cracking, corroding and collapsing,” thus making them vulnerable to hurricane forces such as Maria. In the end, Hurricane Maria caused approximately 2,975 deaths, most of which were traced to the lack of electricity that crippled all medical, emergency services, communications, and basic utilities—such as water and sewer—on the island.
To improve PREPA’s ability to recover rapidly in the future and to avoid or minimize the loss of property and lives, this thesis explores the incorporation of new measures to enhance its network communications, decentralize its power production and distribution, and insert new electricity storage capacity as part of a new operational strategy. Therefore, new technology—in the form of renewable energy production and storage, the insertion of the smart grid concept, and the establishment of independent microgrid systems—was utilized to design a system that could improve PREPA’s ability to recover after a natural or manmade disaster. Using available electricity in megawatts and time to recover as the measures of performance, a decentralized grid proves more resilient to PREPA’s centralized system because, under the proposed decentralized system, more electrical power is available in the shortest amount of time, thus making this system able to recover faster after a natural or manmade disaster.
This thesis found that the combination of ocean tidal power, a smart grid, electricity storage, microgrids, and solar energy could improve Puerto Rico’s power grid reliability, resiliency, and efficiency, thus improving its homeland security readiness. The roadmap for an improved power grid in Puerto Rico is noted in this thesis, and it is now up to policymakers to effectively implement its findings, not only for Puerto Rico but as a test bed for new technology, systems, and protocols that may affect other jurisdictions under similar economic circumstances and natural hazards.

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