Nearly five years after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, the island’s centralized electricity system remains plagued with problems. Fed up with routine outages, sweeping blackouts and damaging voltage surges, many Puerto Ricans are forging their own path to energy security, as Canary Media reports in an in-depth feature this week. Residents had installed more than 315 megawatts of cumulative rooftop solar capacity as of the beginning of 2022 — without much encouragement from the government or utility.
Some 42,000 solar installations were connected to the grid as of this January — more than eight times the number at the end of 2016, the year before hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island, according to a recent analysis.
That figure only includes projects enrolled in net metering, a program under which the utility pays households and businesses for the clean electricity their solar panels provide to the main grid. Thousands more projects have enrolled since January or are in the process of enrolling. And thousands of additional systems are operating but aren’t counted in the official statistics because they don’t participate in net metering, energy experts say. Often, people decide the permitting process and lengthy wait times aren’t worth the hassle.
“We call this an energy insurrection, or the bottom-up movement to transform our energy landscape,” says Arturo Massol Deyá, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus and the executive director of Casa Pueblo, a nonprofit organization.
Massol Deyá co-authored the recent analysis of net-metering customers in Puerto Rico, which primarily uses data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The report, released late last month, also uses data from Luma Energy, the private Canadian-U.S. consortium that operates Puerto Rico’s publicly owned transmission and distribution system.
About 70 percent of the total rooftop solar capacity is installed on people’s houses. That’s enough to meet about 5.5 percent of the residential sector’s overall electricity demand in Puerto Rico, the analysis found.
The vast majority of small-scale solar installations are paired with lithium-ion or lead-acid batteries. That wasn’t the case when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, says PJ Wilson, founder and president of the Solar and Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico. At that time, most people who had solar panels couldn’t use the electricity because their systems were wired directly to the grid and didn’t have batteries, which would have allowed them to power their homes independently — or to bank power for use at night and on cloudy days.
In Puerto Rico, “having distributed storage is about saving lives,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s a five-second, five-hour or five-day blackout, having storage there is the first line of defense.”
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