A fresh perspective on Puerto Rico’s power grid woes
CEO of AI-based company says valuable lessons can be drawn from other islands
By Richard Gutiérrez
For some, the energy situation in Puerto Rico may be rather tiresome, as the subject never seems to leave the headlines of popular newspapers on the island and in the mainland United States.
Many have noted that Puerto Rico’s energy problem comes primarily from its poor infrastructure, which is not ready, nor was it ever, to take the heavy hurricanes that threaten the island every year. Even without a hurricane, electrical service isn’t guaranteed to work flawlessly; anyone who’s lived in the archipelago can testify that even on the sunniest of days the power can go off at any moment.
This is particularly a problem for many important things that citizens need to function properly around many municipalities, such as traffic lights, as well as hospitals, supermarkets, restaurants, and other establishments that all need electricity to work. While the perspective of those who live on the island is exceptionally important, also considering the perspective of someone who lives on another continent, such as Europe, and looking at what they are doing and how Puerto Rico can implement some of these things into its own system, can be valuable as well, as can having a basic understanding of the unique difficulties islands face when it comes to power.
That’s where José A. Martínez comes in. Martínez is the CEO of ADEX, a corporation that specializes in artificial intelligence (AI) and is focused on electricity markets and energy transitions. He is also an expert on businesses in the energy sector of the European Union and on “business angles” from emerging corporations.
In an interview with the STAR, Martínez looked at Puerto Rico’s energy issues and how they could perhaps be fixed, sooner rather than later.
To get to the solution for something, we need to first understand the problem, the executive said.
“If we look at this from every angle that composes the foundation of the energy grid in the island -- the reliability of the electrical service, the sustainability this electric system has, and the economic accessibility that the system has -- Puerto Rico can do better from all three of these angles,” Martínez told the STAR.
“Currently out of all the energy that is generated on the island, only 4 percent of it actually comes from renewable sources,” the industrial engineer said. “The system has issues in terms of reliability because at any moment there can be failures, and in terms of pricing, well, it’s expensive because energy on islands tends to be more expensive than on [the mainland of] continents, but an additional issue to that is that Puerto Rico depends entirely on fossil fuels, which makes the price of electricity double the price of electricity in the mainland United States. Therefore, there are improvements to be made in all three areas.”
Perhaps it is far-fetched to wonder how Puerto Rico can fix the aforementioned problems entirely in the short term, but how can the island begin to resolve those issues -- where do we start? Martínez said that first off, Puerto Rico should start to mix things up in terms of its power sources and stop depending entirely on fossil fuels.
“Diversity in terms of fuel sources is an important point,” he said. “There are also actions that can be taken in the short term that have an immediate result, such as prosumers (people who consume and produce at the same time), as well as solar panels on houses and self-generating energy in industries. That has an immediate effect on the demand as well as the benefit for the energy [sector],” Martínez said. “There is also another short-term benefit, which is to provide more efficiency to existing generation assets, the thermal plants. That has an immediate benefit on anything that has to do with energy transition.”
“Then for a mid- or long-term solution, there are multiple points into a larger interconnection within the island, which means having higher tension lines that make the electrical grid more efficient, and including an interface and connection with other electrical systems, the closest one being the Dominican Republic, which would be the only one possible for achieving such a thing,” he added.
“Lastly, the island should not stop investing in renewable energy such as solar or wind energy,” Martínez said.
Now that all sounds good, but Puerto Rico has an additional problem when it comes to renewable energy, which is that it has double regulation, federal and local, which slows down processes in terms of permits, Martínez said, although, he added, bureaucracy is a solvable problem.
“Let’s say that it isn’t desirable, that if building a solar farm takes around a year and a half to two years, permits last only four to six years -- it’s something that is purely administrative; we don’t have to buy materials, it’s a subject that is very much solvable,” the ADEX CEO said. “For example, the government in Spain created an emergency climate plan in the Canary Islands that reduces the number of administrative permits.”
That sounds similar to what many people say about the commonwealth Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency, better known as COR3, shortening processes as being key to improving the energy system.
However, does Puerto Rico have enough capital to fix these issues, even with the massive debt that it has?
“Even with the debt the island suffers from, there are things that can be done,” Martínez said. “Initiatives that involve the private and public sector, without the necessity of huge investments -- collaboration is key here.”
While it is important for Puerto Rico to take notes from other islands and understand what they are doing so that they can imitate it, the reality is that one size does not fit all; all islands have natural resources that are different from one another, different necessities and climate, even when there are similar population structures.
“The Canary islands, for example, 50 percent of their GDP [gross domestic product] is made from Tourism, while Puerto Rico’s is industries,” Martínez noted. “However, there are important points [to be gleaned] because Puerto Rico is not ahead of the curve in this transition of energy, so Puerto Rico has the luxury to benchmark what other islands are doing and look at the mistakes they’ve made so that they don’t make those same mistakes.”
In other words, being behind in terms of energy sources could be a good thing for the island because it can skip all of the trial and error and jump straight into doing things right by avoiding the mistakes others have made.