The Role Of the Solar Industry In Rebuilding After Disasters

The Role Of the Solar Industry In Rebuilding After Disasters

By Jigar Shah

This past month has been rough for North America with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hitting major US populations and a few devastating earthquakes hitting Mexico, the basic human need to keep their families safe is under attack. It is certainly heartbreaking to see people have their homes and life savings destroyed in an instant; and similarly heartwarming to see neighbors helping neighbors in their time of need. But in the end, lives are disrupted, Government has a vital role, and reconstruction is required at scale. Overlay on top of this that the population continues to spread out to lower lying areas and we depend on energy, transport, water and waste infrastructure to live a modern lifestyle. Everyone watches the disasters on TV, but what can we do about it. At the same time, the solar industry created one out of every thirty-eight jobs in 2016 and now has the strongest electric generation construction industry in the country – capable of raising money and deploying technology quickly. 

Focusing on Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, their electricity grids have been decimated. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has over $9 billion in debt and recently defaulted on its interest payments. The US Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority has been downgraded to a credit rating that indicates a likely default on its bonds. Both utility companies have been cash starved for years and unable to update them to a modern grid. The clean energy industry has an opportunity to lead here with over 250,000 solar employees in the United States. Puerto Rico alone has 80 companies that have installed 88 megawatts of rooftop solar and over 200 megawatts of utility scale solar projects. 

The solar industry was frankly much smaller when the Earthquake in Haiti happened. Moreover, when we offered solutions at the highest levels in Haiti, the Obama administration pushed a fossil fuel solution, instead of supporting a full conversion to locally sourced clean energy. Over time, clean energy entrepreneurs implemented all of the solutions we recommended, but it was with less money, government support, and ultimately the deployment achieved was much less than could have been accomplished.

This time around it is important to note that the clean energy industry is still not prepared to lead this. The industry simply does not have the tentacles into government that everyone thinks we have. But the industry is much bigger now and wants to help so I am glad to see that the Solar Energy Industry Association is stepping up and coordinating. One thing that SEIA is doing this time is focusing on educating Congress on how solar can help federal disaster appropriations and have conversations about how to effectively spend Federal disaster relief funding – including deployment of solar assets and storage – as well as efforts to inform the UN about the benefits of including solar resources with their disaster relief shipments (as opposed to/in addition to diesel generators).

To be clear, this rebuilding effort will be led by the Federal Government and FEMA has to lead this, there just is no other way. FEMA will identify critical infrastructure and the clean energy industry has to be prepared to deploy clean energy solutions quickly that are permanent and cost effective to replace the expensive back up diesel solutions that have already run out of fuel. 

Lets start by saying that the end state in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands should be one without a centralized grid. It should be instead be a series of microgrids and run independently of one another generating power at substantially less than the pre-hurricane prices of between $0.20-$0.34 per kilo-watt hour. 

Solar Lanterns – there are over 1,000,000 of them in inventory that could be air frighted for about $25m. These are crucial because these lanterns reduce how scared people are, charge mobile phones, and provide basic services

Batteries on existing solar installations – there are thousands of solar projects in Puerto Rico and all of them should be retrofitted with battery back-up so they can serve as emergency hubs for the community and commerce. Sunnova is coordinating getting supplies and batteries to Puerto Rico so they can repair customers" systems.

Microgrids for essential infrastructure – there are many hotels, government buildings, schools and other places that are deemed by FEMA as critical infrastructure so that the relief workers and other essential functions can operate. Instead of using diesel generators that will run out of fuel, we should be putting in place microgrids to run these buildings which will also reduce electricity costs long-term in islands like Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

Solar emergency generators – bring those in to power critical infrastructure (water pumps, telecom towers, etc). Azimuth Solar has been promoting this as a long-term solution to help provide power to on-the-ground humanitarian organizations on island communities who have sustained damage from recent hurricanes with their Portable Solar Generator Systems. You can support them here.

Microgrids and more Microgrids – Resiliency is the key here. Over the next six months, the island will run on diesel systems because that is what they know. As distribution lines are repaired, we will have an opportunity to isolate grid systems into smaller units that can serve local populations with higher uptime and lower costs. Some of the transmission lines will need to be repaired using a helicopter to get poles repaired, that makes no sense. As NRG proved on Necker Island, Tesla in Kauai, and Southern Company with PowerSecure it is cost effective to install local grids that can be resilient to hurricanes. This doesn’t mean they won’t sustain damage, just that they can be up and running more quickly at a lower cost after an event. 

For a deeper analysis on how the politics and drama surrounding a sustainable PREPA, please read from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis here andhere. To learn more about Richard Branson"s Marshall Plan for the Caribbean supported by the Rocky Mountain Institute, read more here.

The news media covers the drama of first response to disasters, and our capacity to predict and respond to disasters has improved over the past several decades. But once the cameras depart and the media trucks have driven away, the devastated communities are left on their own. As the clean energy industry, we must not allow the number, severity, and impact of these storms to allow us to accept the ad hoc response to them that has become the norm. Given our expertise and capability it is incumbent on us to provide these communities with long-term support as they face this extraordinary challenge.