(Bloomberg) — On a given sunny day in Puerto Rico, more than 37,100 rooftop solar installations — installed above homes, gas stations, malls and hospitals — produce 255 megawatts of electricity.
This is only about 2.5% of the island’s total power generation. But collectively, the rooftops can be considered Puerto Rico’s largest clean power plant, dwarfing the 101-megawatt Santa Isabel wind farm, the largest renewable generator on the island.
As the US mainland of 3.2 million people scrambles to switch to 100% renewable energy sources by 2050, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on utility-scale initiatives. In March, regulators conditionally approved 18 renewable power plants that are supposed to produce 884 megawatts by 2024. But even with that extra capacity, the island will still depend on fossil fuels for more than 84% of its electricity.
Puerto Rico’s green energy deficit is shedding new light on the outsized role of small, often rooftop solar projects.
Luma Energy, the consortium that began managing Puerto Rico’s fragile and aging power grid in June 2021, says it has connected more than 22,000 solar customers per hour and is adding up to 2,100 more per month.
This has made rooftop solar a “player” in power generation, said Wayne Stensby, CEO of Luma Energy. “On a nice sunny day, you can actually see the effect on net demand.”
Despite having enough sunshine to attract tourists from all over the world, Puerto Rico has done a poor job of harnessing it for energy. Utility-level renewables make up about 3.6% of Puerto Rico’s energy mix, and solar is only a fraction of that.
On an island where blackouts are frustratingly common — and electricity rates are higher than in nearly every other US jurisdiction — interest in solar power is growing. The island now has more household solar installations per capita than all but eight US states, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.
Before Hurricane Maria in 2017, about 9,000 solar rooftops were connected to the grid, said Javier Roa Gouvette, chief policy officer for the Puerto Rico Solar and Energy Storage Association, an industry advocacy group.
Most of these projects were driven by hopes of lowering electricity bills. But after a hurricane swept through the island and plunged parts of it into darkness for more than 11 months, solar power became a survival tool.
“At first it was a savings proposition, now the rationale is to have power,” Rua-Jovet said. “You have to remember that almost three thousand people died in Puerto Rico after Maria” – and many of those deaths have been blamed on the crushing effects of prolonged power outages.
This paradigm shift, from savings to survival, means that nearly every solar facility is now sold with battery backup. This opens up entirely new possibilities for the island.
In other markets, such as Australia, rooftop solar batteries have been linked to grids at virtual power stations, or VPPs, which can be pressed into service during peak demand or when generators are down.
Rua-Jovet Group estimates that there are 60,000 batteries spread out on the island, representing about 300 megawatts of power. About 1,800 new batteries are installed each month. At this rate, “I think you could argue that Puerto Rico has the largest untapped hypothetical power plant in Western civilization,” said Roa Jovet.
Loma says his priority is to repair 52,000 miles of unstable transmission and distribution lines and other critical infrastructure. (For example, a five-decade-old circuit-breaker fire in April knocked out the entire island and took nearly five days to fully restore it.) But the company plans to build a new control center and energy management system that could support a virtual power plant. , according to Stensby.
“We’re looking at how to start taking advantage of rooftop solar and integrating it directly into your system, but we’re not there yet,” he said.
Puerto Rico is not alone in taking a second look at the collective power of small rooftop projects. Across the Caribbean, renewables account for about 12% of the energy mix, said Higinos Leon, president of the Caribbean Development Bank, a figure that has only budged four percentage points in the past decade.
If CDB members want to achieve their goal of 55% renewables by 2030, they cannot count on the “slow” growth of utility-scale renewable energy projects, he said in April at the Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum in Miami.
One of the bank’s proposals is to mass-produce prefab roofs integrated with solar panels and batteries and make them a regional building standard.
“This would address climate, housing, and energy distribution, if we could just think of that,” Lyon said. “We can’t count on business as usual.”
Stensby says Luma is actively working to remove obstacles for people to connect their small solar installations to the grid. Before a company takes charge, it often takes years to deliver the project; Now the company claims the average is 14 days.
“There is a determination here to get to renewable energy as quickly as possible,” Stensby said. “From the beginning, we knew this was very important to Puerto Rico.”
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