Maria Blows Away the Old, In with the New?

This year’s hurricane season has put on full display the havoc natural disasters can cause around the world. Every one of these events, from earthquakes to wildfires, have the power to bring entire regions to their knees and, in extreme cases, force devastated communities to rebuild energy infrastructure completely from scratch.

Under normal circumstances, updating infrastructure is politically challenging and difficult to procure funding for. Areas heavily affected by natural disasters however, are presented with an opportunity to renovate and implement sustainable change. This is nowhere more obvious than in Puerto Rico. The devastation inflicted upon the American island territory has been stark. Thousands of people have been without shelter, water and electricity for more than two weeks.

As short-term solutions are being carried out, a rethinking of energy infrastructure on the island is desperately needed. Puerto Rico’s energy system has been in dire straits long before Hurricane Maria. Being largely dependent on fossil fuels, residents were experiencing blackouts 5 to 6 times more often than their counterparts on the American mainland. Maria simply blew the flickering Puerto Rican lights out.

As Puerto Ricans rebuild their electrical grid, they must transition towards renewable energy sources, emphasizing sustainability and grid resilience. Solar and wind are the most obvious candidates. Sunshine in the Caribbean is more abundant than in California and wind is comparable to states like Texas, which leads the US in wind energy. By utilizing these locally abundant energy resources, the island could move towards energy autarky and free itself from volatile fossil fuel prices. If complemented with energy storage and a decentralized, smart microgrid, a system more resilient to expansive blackouts would emerge. During state of emergencies, it would allow electricity to be reserved for vital emergency services like hospitals and evacuation areas and would restore a semblance of normalcy in the aftermath of disaster more quickly.

Investment in these areas will ensure that the island will be better positioned to face future storms, while simultaneously improving the sustainability of its energy system and lowering the long-term cost of electricity. Cities, regions and countries elsewhere must look at their own vulnerabilities. They must account for deficiencies in their energy infrastructure and address them accordingly before it is too late. Puerto Rico stands as an example of what negligence can lead to. Businesses, civil society and government must be proactive in preparing for the inevitable.