Rebuild Strong, Not Green, in Puerto Rico

Sell the bankrupt power authority and harden the grid.

 
 

The Palo Seco Power Plant in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Sept. 25.
The Palo Seco Power Plant in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Sept. 25. PHOTO: ALEX WROBLEWSKI/BLOOMBERG NEWS
 

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.

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.

All this would cost far less than going green. And while the two paths are not mutually exclusive—hybrid solar-diesel emergency generators, for example—federal and state governments have spent hundreds of billions of dollars pushing for “smart” and green grids instead of resilient and restorable ones.

Now is the time to build an extreme grid in Puerto Rico. Given the scale of the disaster, federal funding is essential, but will ignite predictable political squabbles. There is a way of approaching the problem that could benefit both Puerto Ricans and people living on exposed grids everywhere—that is, practically everyone.

With proper directives and incentives, private businesses could meet the engineering challenge more quickly, cost-effectively and creatively than government bureaucracies. Fears about privatizing infrastructure are irrelevant. Who’d want to own Prepa now anyway? And why rebuild a system so that it is guaranteed to break next time?

Prepa should be auctioned off with the promise of federal matching funds equal to the cost of rebuilding a standard grid. But the new owner should be required to pay to make Puerto Rico’s grid super-resilient. A hardened grid could also become a laboratory for exploring next-generation “extreme” tech.

Given the devastation that future storms are guaranteed to bring, private and government entities across the Caribbean are nervous about rebuilding. A determination to build resilient electric grids would go a long way toward restoring confidence in the viability of those island communities.

Mr. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.

Appeared in the October 6, 2017, print edition.

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