Sell the bankrupt power authority and harden the grid.
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s electric grid, destroying half the island’s long-distance transmission lines and compromising most local distribution capacity. Virtually all cell towers went dark. Restoring service under these conditions would be a daunting challenge under any circumstances. But Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority filed for bankruptcy last July.
Now is the time to build an extreme grid in Puerto Rico.
Environmentalists are already lobbying for Prepa to build a greener grid, one less dependent on “old” fuels like oil. But Puerto Rico didn’t go dark because of how it produces electricity. The power plants survived. The wires distributing power got destroyed.
A greener grid would do nothing to minimize suffering after the next hurricane. What Puerto Rico and others need is a harder grid so that far fewer people are blasted back to the 19th century when disaster strikes and service can be restored faster after a blackout.
Engineers can do it. Previous calamitous outages have pointed to solutions: stronger poles and wires; waterproofed substations with sturdier, higher walls; pre-emptive tree removal near wires; and, for essential parts of the system, buried wires. New classes of materials for radically stronger poles and wires are emerging, as is software that can model extreme events and radically improve system designs. Other ideas: low-power sensors that can operate in blackouts by scavenging power from nature and gather critical information for repair and recovery, and swarms of drones for rapid damage assessment.
Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering. In 2016, he was named “Energy Writer of the Year” by the American Energy Society. Follow him on Twitter here.
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