Rebuilding for resilience

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Hurricanes have devastated vast swathes of the Caribbean in recent years, with recent Category 5 storms such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria wiping out the electricity systems of numerous islands. As the region recovers, many islands are starting to use decentralized renewable sources and storage technologies to build more resilient energy systems. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is at the forefront of encouraging island communities to incorporate resilience planning in their energy strategies now, rather than waiting for disasters to hit.

“Most of the countries that were not hit did not necessarily make any changes to their systems to make them more resilient,” says Stephen Mushegan, a project manager for RMI’s islands program. The organization is actively using Resilient National Energy Transition Strategy (R-NETS) processes to change thinking about resiliency. “The emphasis has always been on cost and reliability, and lately environmental energy independence. Without a resilience plan, there is no action.”

Rethinking resilience

The region’s islands are at different stages of rethinking system design. In July, British Virgin Islands Electricity Corp. – whose grid was left in tatters by Irma – unveiled a new R-NETS to create a cleaner, more resilient system. And in Antigua and Barbuda, the utility is developing Category 5-resilient solar and battery systems.

Several smaller islands are also aggressively transforming their energy systems. On Bonaire, for example, Wärtsilä recently commissioned a 6 MW/6 MWh storage system that the Finnish industrial group claims will double renewables penetration.

Bigger islands devastated in 2017, such as Puerto Rico, are also trying to create resilient systems. “Because it is a U.S. territory, many of the microgrid developers in the U.S. have wanted to jump on that,” says Isaac Maze-Rothstein, a research associate for Wood Mackenzie. The consultancy classifies microgrids as systems offering 24 hours of backup, which does not include most solar+storage setups.

Definitions of systems vary – in the Dominican Republic, for example, many microgrids in the 500 kW range have been built. But some standalone grids in the country are bigger than the entire capacity of other islands, notes Clemens Findeisen, project manager of Germany’s international development agency GIZ.

“Storage will play a major role in all the Caribbean as renewable energy penetration increases,” Mushegan says. “Any island that has high renewable energy targets should expect to be a great opportunity for storage.”

Solar successes

At grid scale, the Dominican Republic and Cuba lead in regional PV deployment, with roughly 166 MW and 96 MW of respective cumulative capacity at the end of 2018, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The Dominican Republic operates a robust large-scale PV tendering process, but has also installed a significant amount of commercial and residential capacity under its net metering scheme.

Meanwhile, Wood Mackenzie is “optimistic” Cuba could install more than 50 MW over the next five years, due to issues with Venezuela’s PetroCaribe energy alliance. “That change in Venezuela – they’re sort of looking to diversify outside of oil,” Maze-Rothstein explains.

He notes the importance of thinking about “resilience” at the grid level but also the facility level, especially for commercial-industrial projects. The consultancy views the latter as separate from typical solar+storage installations. Policymakers need to consider multiple options, from “hardening” traditional infrastructure to focusing on renewables-backed microgrids, but few have figured out how to get the policy right to create new utility business models.

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Active market

RMI estimates that several hundred megawatt-hours of storage have been deployed in Puerto Rico. Wood Mackenzie sees it as one of the most active customer-sited microgrid markets in the Caribbean and expects it to more than double in size by late 2024 to 228 MW, with a projected investment of $419 million.

RMI also believes Puerto Rico is emerging as a model of resilience and energy planning for other islands. The outcome of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) restructuring and privatization remains unclear, but Siemens recently submitted a new draft for the utility’s 2019-2038 integrated resource plan (IRP), which accommodates 1.8 GW of PV and 920 MW of storage in its initial five years. It also calls for eight minigrids, integrated with the island’s transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure, to improve resiliency by splitting the grid into load pockets supplied by distributed resources.

“Really novel – we haven’t seen anything like that to this point. We’ve never seen an IRP that integrates microgrids as a core conceptual framework – sort of saying ‘we need microgrids to make this the most resilient system possible,” says Maze-Rothstein.

Concerns remain over PREPA’s creditworthiness, as well as interconnection issues. PREPA is expected to soon announce its new T&D operator, but growth in storage deployment is also expected below the grid scale, with Wood Mackenzie estimating that 1,400 residential solar+storage systems were installed in Puerto Rico over the last year.

Paying for resilience

The road to resiliency remains rocky, and one of the challenges is paying for it. A dearth of incentives, as well as real and perceived risks, make it tough to get the economics right.

In Haiti’s nascent off-grid market, which Wood Mackenzie says could grow by 40 MW in the next five years, EarthSpark International is already building community solar+storage microgrid systems.

“On a prepay, local vending basis – there’s a lot of remote access to the data,” says Madison Sturgess, project manager for the non-profit organization.

This lowers operational costs, which Sturgess says is a “big step” in moving microgrid markets toward market. And the past six months have been “really exciting” for policy development, she says.

“The needle has started to move with the Haitian government. It’s really building a market from scratch,” she explains. “You’ve got to derisk this whole process by just doing it. So we’re building the grids. The grids generate the data. And the data informs thoughtful policy advocacy.”