T&D World C&E on DER in Puerto Rico: Reconnecting the Grid one piece at a time

Oct. 10, 2022
Luma Energy, a joint venture of Quanta Services and ATCO, was granted the work to handle operations and maintenance of the Puerto Rico grid in the wake of PREPA’s financial meltdown. U.S. authorites allocated $15 million to get the island grid back up

The island of enchantment, as Puerto Rico has sometimes been known, has mostly been a land of grid disenchantment lost within a volatile Caribbean paradise over the past decade.

Hurricane after hurricane has roared over the U.S. territory, ripping at its already fragile and overextended electric transmission system. Allegations of corruption and confirmed financial chaos have enveloped its state-run utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (orPREPA), which filed for bankruptcy several years ago.

To make matters even worse, Hurricane Fiona arrived a few weeks back to once again cut service to more than a million customers while also killing more than 100 residents.

Welcome to Puerto Rico, Luma.

“We inherited a lot of challenges,” understated Lee Wood, director business transformation for Luma Energy, said during his talk on “DER Recovery and Transformation in Puerto Rico” during the T&D World Conference & Exhibition this past week in Charlotte.

Luma Energy, a joint venture of Quanta Services and ATCO, was formed and granted the work to handle operations and maintenance of the Puerto Rico grid in the wake of PREPA’s financial meltdown. The U.S. government allocated $15 million to get the island back on track, electricity-wise, and to lay the foundation for a more distributed energy grid sustained by solar power and energy storage.

Luma, which only manages and does not own the grid assets there, has been roundly criticized by some, but it already has restored power to more than 98 percent of the island after Fiona was the latest hurricane to tear the fabric of grid infrastructure with yet another blackout. That was much faster than anything achieved by PREPA, considering some Puerto Rican customers went a year without power following previous storms.

One of the key strategies developed by U.S. federal agencies and on-site players like LUMA is to develop a successful distributed energy resource framework for reconnecting many of the homes and businesses there. A net metering incentive was put into the place to help make rooftop solar and small-scale energy storage attractive for customers.

“Luma activated 27,000 new customers in the first year” after it took over O&M functions for the grid in June 2021. Wood recalled.  The rate of DER and net metering additions was three times faster than under PREPA, Wood pointed out.

“Now we’re at 55,000 new net metering customers,” he said. “We have 4,000 new applications each month.”

Renewables developer Sunrun is handling probably 80 percent of those new rooftop solar installations in Puerto Rico, the Luma leader noted, nearly all of those under lease option arrangements. Most of the new solar systems are around 5.6-kW capacity.

About 30,000 Puerto Rican customer have residential batteries, which altogether can generate about 700 MWh of installed capacity.

In a land where the average duration of outage is high and disruptions are frequent, many in the past afforded their own versions of microgrids with gas or diesel-fired generators. With Hurricane Maria and other disasters, however, most ran out of fuel for those generators within several weeks.

The rollout of DER solar and storage, buoyed by the net metering incentives, creates a framework for more consistent, sustainable and environmentally friendly power reliability, officials say.

Truthfully, though, in Puerto Rico only the consistency and reliability parts really matter much to most residents.

“At the moment we’re trying to keep the lights on,” Luma’s Wood said. “They don’t think much about decarbonization. They have bigger priorities.”

More coverage from the T&D World Conference

Tech Tour of Duke's Energy's Mount Holly Emerging Technology Innovation Center

Fleet Electrification and Utilities: The Dance is just Beginning

The inaugural T&D World Conference ended Friday at the Downtown Sheraton in Charlotte. The second annual event is scheduled next September in Sacramento.

-- -- --

(Rod Walton, senior editor for EnergyTech, is a 14-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a newspaper and trade journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]). 

Follow us on Twitter @EnergyTechNews_ and @rodwaltonelp and on LinkedIn

About the Author

Rod Walton, EnergyTech Managing Editor | Senior Editor

For EnergyTech editorial inquiries, please contact Managing Editor Rod Walton at [email protected].

Rod Walton has spent 15 years covering the energy industry as a newspaper and trade journalist. He formerly was energy writer and business editor at the Tulsa World. Later, he spent six years covering the electricity power sector for Pennwell and Clarion Events. He joined Endeavor and EnergyTech in November 2021.

Walton earned his Bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. His career stops include the Moore American, Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, Wagoner Tribune and Tulsa World. 

EnergyTech is focused on the mission critical and large-scale energy users and their sustainability and resiliency goals. These include the commercial and industrial sectors, as well as the military, universities, data centers and microgrids. The C&I sectors together account for close to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

He was named Managing Editor for Microgrid Knowledge and EnergyTech starting July 1, 2023

Many large-scale energy users such as Fortune 500 companies, and mission-critical users such as military bases, universities, healthcare facilities, public safety and data centers, shifting their energy priorities to reach net-zero carbon goals within the coming decades. These include plans for renewable energy power purchase agreements, but also on-site resiliency projects such as microgrids, combined heat and power, rooftop solar, energy storage, digitalization and building efficiency upgrades.