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Puerto Rico eyes building the energy grid of the future


Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electric grid when it came ashore last September, but the disaster has created an opportunity to build something better.

“Energy insurgents,” as environmental activists on the island call themselves, are fighting to create a new system that gets its energy from the island’s plentiful sun. They envision a network of clean-energy microgrids—homes and businesses equipped with solar panels and batteries—that leave behind Puerto Rico’s fossil fuel past. Those activists are now being joined by companies like Tesla, Sunrun and Sunova eager to build an electric grid for the future.

So far, the fossil fuel lobby and an influential member of Congress, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah (R) who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, have thrown their weight behind the status quo: doubling down on centralized gas and oil power plants that dispatch electricity along hundreds of miles of transmission lines.

Yet another vision is taking shape on the island of Vieques, home to 9,000 people about eight miles off the Puerto Rican mainland. In the storm’s wake, the main power line connecting it to the mainland was severed. Power was off or intermittent for months. Companies like Tesla installed solar panel arrays and massive batteries to help keep the lights on and water flowing across the tiny island.

Now Puerto Rico is considering replicating that model everywhere by creating a series of microgrids energized, in part, by solar panels. Eventually, the old grid may just serve as a backup.

But it has a long way to go. The island generates nearly half its electricity (pdf, p. 4, in Spanish) burning oil or diesel. Before Hurricane Maria last April, the utility’s fiscal plan proposed keeping natural gas and coal as its primary fuel source with renewables just a minority of the energy mix. 

Hurricane Maria shook up that equation. The US Congress has allocated more than $18 billion to rebuild the island, much of it earmarked for the island’s energy sector.  Now Puerto Rico must decide if it wants to build the energy grid of the future, or stick with the past.

Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.

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