Out of the crisis created by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, comes the opportunity to create a clean, sustainable and resilient energy system in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
After narrowly avoiding the worst impacts from Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in the early hours of September 20th. I had been unable to fall asleep since about 5am that morning tracking the strength of the storm and the track it was taking towards the island. Through some small miracle, the landline at my parents’ home continued to work as the storm was making its way across the island. I was on the phone with my sister as the winds battered the house and water found even the smallest spaces to get inside. They survived the storm in good spirits, but a week after, and with few signs that things will improve soon, they are feeling as battered and bruised as the rest of the island.
The strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in almost a 100 years, it has plunged the island into darkness by destroying the old and poorly maintained electric systems. Cut off from fossil fuels, the people in Puerto Rico grow increasingly desperate. Power plants that operate on petroleum cannot operate, trucks that could bring supplies to affected areas are without diesel, small generators that have brought some relief to a few lucky homes are almost out of fuel and most people have used almost all the gas in their cars. On an island completely dependent on fossil fuels, the situation is now truly desperate.
Short term, the priority is to stabilize this rapidly deteriorating situation by ensuring everyone has shelter, access to food and water and medical help. Also in the short term, regaining electrical service or at least access to electricity can bring some much needed relief and comfort. Solar energy has a role to play here, as mobile arrays and battery systems can be used to power up critical infrastructure across the island. Solar energy can also help power up people’s devices and aid in reestablishing communications. The same holds true for the other islands that were in the hurricanes’ paths.
As Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other impacted islands transition toward rebuilding their infrastructure, they would benefit from a focus on resiliency and sustainability. For the energy sector, transitioning away from centralized power plants dependent on fossil fuels and towards clean distributed generation, linked micro-grids and renewable energy (as the islands of Hawaii have done) would help reduce electricity costs, pollution from energy generation and help the island get back on its feet faster after storms. Let’s not just bounce back from this disaster, let’s use the opportunity to bounce forward.