A group of professors and researchers of electric power systems presented their “collective and personal vision of a sustainable energy future for Puerto Rico” to Judge Laura Taylor-Swain, who is overseeing the island’s debt restructuring, and the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico.
In their letter, the group proposed a transformation of the island’s power infrastructure to maximize the use of local energy resources: conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. The proposal rejects the current centralized generation, transmission and distribution system, as well as its dependence on large fossil fuel plants.
Instead, the researchers propose a model that calls for distributed rooftop photovoltaic systems, solar communities, and microgrids, combined with effective demand response programs and energy storage, to transform the electric infrastructure in Puerto Rico.
“Keeping the same type of electric system and simply transferring it from public to private hands will not resolve our electricity challenges. Until affordable storage arrives, we will need traditional generation but these fossil fuel-based generators must prioritize enabling the maximum use of renewable energy,” the group of experts said in their letter.
“Replacement of fossil fuel-based generation must be made within existing power plants, in sites that are already environmentally impacted, and where Puerto Rico has leverage to negotiate better agreements with private investors,” according to the letter signed by Erick E. Aponte, Marcel Castro-Sitiriche, Agustín A. Irizarry-Rivera, Efraín O’Neill-Carrillo, Lionel R. Orama-Exclusa, Eduardo I. Ortiz-Rivera and Alberto Ramírez-Orquín.
Through this model, “users would no longer be passive consumers…but would become protagonists” through their participation in the decentralized system.
“For decades, the dominant energy model of has been based on large plants. Today. global realities are different, and in Puerto Rico, which has an isolated system that has no fossil resources, the viability of other models occurs much earlier than in places with have fossil resources,” said Ortiz-Rivera.
The researchers believe that during the transition period of the current system to a more distributed one that also allows access to the energy storage systems to all types of customer, it will be necessary to maintain plants that burn natural gas.
However, they propose that these plants are gradually transferred to fill a secondary role to maximize local energy resources, and that smaller, more efficient and flexible generators are used instead, but located on the same site where existing plants are.
The researchers said keeping the existing electrical system and simply transferring power generation to the private sector is not a solution to the island’s energy problems.
“Partnerships with the private sector have to be mutually beneficial, they can not only be beneficial for the investor. There is no need for new plants in new places. What’s best for Puerto Rico is to use the space in existing plants by replacing large generators with new smaller, more flexible generators,” said O’Neill.
“This facilitates permitting processes, and the construction and launch of the new generation. And most importantly, it will allow Puerto Rico to have a negotiating tool with the private sector and achieve the best possible arrangements after transparent assessments of possible private proposals,” he said.
Meanwhile, Orama said Puerto Rico’s current energy infrastructure was planned and built under presumptions of a centralized model.
“Therefore, it is necessary to rethink which electrical infrastructure Puerto Rico needs to maximize economic and social development while protecting our island’s atmosphere,” he said.
Puerto Rico should have started the transition to the distributed model at least 10 years ago, the group said.
“In 2007, when Law 114 allowing net metering was approved, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority missed an opportunity to reinvent itself and facilitate the acquisition of rooftop photovoltaic systems for their clients,” Irizarry said.
“We’re on record saying that at the public hearings that were held in 2008. Puerto Rico lost that opportunity, and today there are private companies doing just that, renting rooftop solar systems,” Irizarry said.
By comparison, Hawaii, which has a weaker electrical system than Puerto Rico, aims to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2045. The goal in Puerto Rico is still only 20 percent, as established in 2010, he said.
In their letter, the group said the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act’s Title V provision “can cause a lot of damage if the projects selected by the Board prioritize the developer’s profits, and not the benefit to Puerto Rico.”
Title V promotes “privatized generation” but does not limit that to using rooftops rather than large plants.
“At 11 cents per kWh, photovoltaic energy systems on rooftops are a better choice than big new plants. To those 11 cents, you would add a contribution to network maintenance a service fee to use it,” the experts said in their letter.
“But even with that fee, whose fair value must be calculated, the cost would be below the 20 cents we paid in July 2017,” the group said, urging communities to get involved in the upcoming process, including the public comment periods, urging that those options be a priority for the Board.