While the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) continues to raise concerns over its capability to provide that primary service in the aftermath of natural disasters, more residents are choosing to get off-grid or reduce their dependency on this public corporation by switching to solar panels and battery storage systems.
The new decade kicked off with a series of seismic activities that devastated communities in the southwestern region of the island. On Jan. 7, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks destroyed homes, schools and myriad other buildings, forcing residents of that region to seek shelter. Prepa’s automatic protection systems caused all power plants to shut down, resulting in an islandwide blackout that lasted between one and two days.
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL interviewed several leaders within the renewable energy industry who said that the combined trauma from the months-long power interruption after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and the ongoing seisms, have resulted in a greater interest and consumer demand.
“After the hurricane, the market shifted to a service or technology that included energy storage because of [Prepa’s] weakened grid, all the needs that the people endured in Puerto Rico due to lack of power and the deaths that occurred over that lack of service. Puerto Ricans changed their way of thinking and have shown a much greater interest in having a much more efficient and stable power service that, unfortunately, Prepa’s grid doesn’t offer,” said Karla Zambrana, general manager at Sunnova Energy Corporation’s Puerto Rico division.
According to Zambrana, Sunnova PR has gained more than 2,500 clients since the category 4 storm damaged Prepa’s electric grid.
Jorge Hernández, marketing manager at Supermercado de Baterías, claims that after recent earthquakes his family business has seen a 50 percent increase in demand for energy storage devices or batteries. Meanwhile, West Power Solutions General Manager Ari Feliciano ventured that demand has risen by roughly 400 percent compared to previous months.
“I believe that after Maria, the earthquakes and Prepa’s high rates—those are the main reasons—the people have already decided to switch to solar energy because there is no other alternative,” Hernández said.
This growing inclination toward solar energy is also aligned with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, whose goals include clean and affordable energy, responsible consumption and production and climate action.
Likewise, the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act (Act 17-2019) stipulates that the island must draw 40 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025, 60 percent by 2040, and 100 percent by 2050. Currently, less than 3 percent of Prepa clients have renewable storage systems.
Disconnecting from Prepa’s Grid
Given the growing discontent and uncertainty over Prepa’s services, as well as for environmental reasons, some residents have already opted to remain completely off-grid from the public corporation. Zambrana, for instance, tells clients that they can opt to “cut the cord” with the agency, claiming that the option to sever ties with Prepa is up to the consumer. If the client decides to do so, he or she would only have to notify Prepa. Whether this move is feasible or cost-effective is up to the client’s discretion.
Hernández indicated that the number and cost of equipment will vary depending on the client’s needs and usage.
“A very basic system of 6,000 watts can power practically an entire house and you can alternate equipment and even power an air conditioner. This is the most economical option and you can disconnect entirely from electric energy,” Hernández said. The cost of the equipment ranges between $7,000 to $8,500. Supermercado de Baterías, which offers a variety of brands, is located in Isabela.
Meanwhile, Sunnova PR provides a monthly service that includes the installment of equipment, management, maintenance and client support. As an example, Zambrana said that if a client regularly pays around $150 for Prepa’s service, they would pay roughly that amount with the added value of having a storage system.
In the case of West Power Solutions, located in Mayagüez, a typical solar panel of 260 watts costs roughly $250, while a kit of three panels and batteries costs $2,500, aside from $350 for the installation. These prices tend to go upward in accordance with the client’s needs. However, Feliciano stated that transitioning fully to solar energy would not be a practical financial decision.
“Economically, it doesn’t make much sense because if I want to be off-grid I need to have energy reserves that will cost me a lot of money to keep just in case… The cost of leaving the authority per kilowatt-hour (kWh) may be the same as remaining connected to the authority. There is no cost difference, except that I would have to pay thousands of dollars at once, which doesn’t make much financial sense,” Feliciano opined.
In addition, Prepa’s restructuring support agreement (RSA) contemplates establishing a usage fee for clients who generate their own power—a highly-criticized initiative that has been described as a “solar tax”. If approved as is, this fee would go into effect sometime around Sept. 2020. The RSA was drafted last year and presented before the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), but the closure of Prepa’s Costa Sur facility after the 6.4 earthquake will inevitably prompt a revision of the entire document and a court hearing with Judge Taylor Swain, thus delaying the fee’s implementation.
Alas, there is an option for residents who wish to generate their own energy while remaining connected to Prepa’s electric grid. Prepa offers a net measurement program through which clients who generated an energy surplus can export it to the agency’s grid and receive a credit in their monthly electricity bills. According to Hernández, the certification process takes about six months, on average.
Availability Limited in Condominiums
While some companies only offer their services to single households—such as Sunnova PR—both businesses and condominiums have different mechanisms available through other suppliers, though it would be more of a challenge in the latter’s case.
“In the meantime, there is no technology that we could say is condominium-friendly. Not because it can’t be done, but because the Horizontal Property Act is slightly limited in terms of what kind of technology can be used in a condominium. However, because technology changes, I believe that we will reach a point where there will be technology to address that market,” Zambrana said.
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked Zambrana if, theoretically, a solar energy system could be implemented to power certain areas of a condominium if the residents reach a consensus.
Aims to boost use of solar energy in Puerto Rico
“In that case, yes—for communal areas, elevators, cisterns or even to power any particular appliance in the apartment. Of course, this would entail an energy design that would be more challenging in regard to engineering design, but if everyone agrees to use it on communal areas, then that technology would be available,” she stated.
For his part, Hernández affirmed that availability and efficiency will depend on the type of building. For example, a walk-up type of structure would incorporate solar energy and battery storage more smoothly because it has larger terraces or roofs. Meanwhile, traditional condominiums would require many more solar panels just to power certain areas or appliances. However, there is a portable storage system that residents can use individually in their apartments.
“They are essentially power inverters with solar panels. You can leave the power inverter in the balcony and place the panel during the daytime. Because it is removable, the power inverter has its battery charge that will last between 10 to 12 hours and then you can connect a fridge and fan, for example… If you go home at night and you don’t have power, then you can connect it,” Hernández said.
More Options Underway
Hernández went on to add that there are various technologies in the evaluation and production stages that could revolutionize the renewable energy industry. Regarding panels, some are being manufactured with a crystalline exterior, so its aesthetics can complement contemporary condominiums and buildings. Others have greater flexibility and can be given a certain angle for aesthetics or practicality; while others are being developed with nanotechnology, resulting in smaller panels with the ability to produce greater power.
“There are many new technologies that are being evaluated and developed and I believe that they will be available in the market soon… A short while back we began the search for these new panel technologies and we have already found some new suppliers,” Hernández said, adding that finding a certified a supplier can take around six months.
Zambrana asserted that, as new technologies emerge and power concerns thicken, more Puerto Ricans will opt to transition to solar energy, which she deemed a better option than Prepa’s service.
“It is the best option, not just because of environmental issues… but also ensuring the continuity of people’s lives. Not just saving lives in the event of a natural disaster—such as Maria or the recent earthquakes—but also providing Puerto Ricans that guarantee that if another national disaster happens… they can continue their lives as normally as possible,” Zambrana said.
Editor's note: This article has been modified to clarify that Zambrana does not "urge" Sunnova's clients to remain off-grid.