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Prolonged post-hurricane electricity outages highlight need for more resilient energy infrastructure | Leveraging Opportunity Zones for Resilience

This post is a part of our series on private infrastructure resilience – or lack thereof – during major disasters. Learn more here.

The 2017 Hurricane Season left Puerto Rico reeling, isolated, and in the dark. Hurricane Irma lashed the island with wind and rain, and left one million residents without power, even though it did not fully make landfall. Hurricane Maria struck only two weeks after Irma in late September with wind speeds over 60 mph and heavy rain. This caused upwards of six feet of flooding in some areas and an estimated $90 billion worth of damage. The island’s 3.4 million residents were left without electricity after the storm destroyed the power grid, with serious long-term effects on the island, especially to basic health and safety. A week after Maria, the majority of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals remained without electricity or fuel for generators, leaving them unable to care for patients. The death toll of the hurricane is estimated at almost 3,000 people.

Puerto Rico’s largest power supplier, the government owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), is the only one permitted to operate on the island. A slashed budget and aging infrastructure made the system woefully unequipped to handle the approaching storm. Still recovering from Irma, 80,000 residents were already without power when Maria made landfall. After Maria, most of Puerto Rico’s 2,400 miles of transmission lines, 30,000 miles of distribution lines and 342 substations were left severely damaged. This made for a long and complex restoration process.

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PREPA, with the aid of government power restoration crews sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), worked to provide electricity across the island in the months following. By September FEMA’s resources were already stretched thin. The agency had deployed 30,000 federal workers to Houston after Hurricane Harvey and 22,000 to Florida following Irma. For Puerto Rico, which received a substantial amount of damage, only 10,000 workers were sent.

Puerto Rico Army National Guard members work on clearing Highway 511 from Ponce to Jayuya in Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Sept. 11, 2017. Puerto Rico Army National Guard photo by Spc. Agustin Montanez

One year later, power outages still occur regularly across the island. As of July, despite over $3.8 billion invested in repairs and upgrades to the grid, some residents were still relying on old and costly generators to survive. Federal government energy contractors, primarily hired by the Army Corps of Engineers, were pulled back in May, despite protests for them to stay and finish the restoration process. The cited reason: lack of money.

Private investment into electric power systems can aid in situations where budget is a considerable issue. Several companies, like Tesla, Duracell, and Sonnen, sent battery storage units to the island, while solar companies SunRun and Vivint Solar brought solar generating hardware. In April, an outage caused by a bulldozer hitting a power line left over a million customers without power. However, Tesla’s energy storage systems powered 667 locations, including a hospital and a sewage treatment plant.  

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Financial incentives are often needed for businesses to invest into a community. According to Tesla, for a 1,100 square foot home to sustain one day of power during a blackout, two of its battery Powerwalls would be necessary. The cost of the equipment alone, not including permits, grid interconnection fees, and electrical upgrades, would be $11,700. For the average Puerto Rican, this is far too expensive.

Recently, the entire island of Puerto Rico was designated as an opportunity zone. This gives private companies ample incentive to invest into upgrading and adapting the island’s electric grid. Private investment allows for targeted solutions that are more community-needs based than blanket-statement plans laid at a national level. Additionally, private investment could help overcome years of debt and underfunding in the island’s energy sector, while upgrading and modernizing existing infrastructure. With private investment into long-term energy and infrastructure solutions, the catastrophic and costly consequences that Puerto Rico has experienced, and that still persist, may be mitigated in the future.

To learn more about Opportunity Funds, read the first installment in this series of blog posts:

As disasters increase, Opportunity Zones could turn the resilience investment tide