Gas, Policy & Regulation, Renewables

DOE thinks natural gas is best for Puerto Rico grid despite renewables pledge

The Trump Administration’s Department of Energy wants Puerto Rico to strengthen its energy resiliency with a greater mix of natural gas-fired generation, although the recommendation flies in the face of the island leadership’s announced commitment to renewables and infrastructural challenges acknowledged by DOE itself last year.

DOE Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker told a U.S. House committee Tuesday that adding 1,200 MW to 1,600 MW of gas-fired generation would improve Puerto Rico’s power resiliency in the wake of the Hurricane Maria devastation, according to Utility Dive. The U.S. is becoming a net exporter of energy thanks to the shale drilling successes of the past decade.

Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the island’s electricity grid in 2017. The U.S. territory has played host to numerous companies working to both rebuild the infrastructure and deploy such alternative energy tools as renewables and microgrids.

Last month, Puerto Rico’s political leadership voted to set a goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Much of the island’s Maria-era grid has been powered by petroleum oil.

A 2018 U.S. DOE report said that importing more natural gas could help Puerto Rico cut its power generation fuel costs by about 10 percent. It did note, however, that transporting liquified natural gas from U.S. ports to Puerto Rico on a large scale could take several years to meet federal rules.

“There may be no capacity at U.S. shipyards to build a Jones Act compliant ship for LNG transport before the mid-2020s,” the DOE report reads. “In addition to large volumes of LNG, smaller volumes of LNG could be transported to Puerto Rico in ISO containers. DOE is aware of at least one company that provided small-scale LNG shipments to Puerto Rico earlier this year.”

The island does have some capacity for expanding LNG imports but it would also need a pipeline along the southern coast or one through the mountains to San Juan, according to the report.

Puerto Rico has a population of about 3.3 million residents and a total installed capacity of  six million kW, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The island, however, has no domestic reserves of oil, natural gas or coal.

Some Puerto Rico observers have said that microgrids combining renewables, gensets and energy storage might provide the best protection against a future storm. Even the DOE, in the same report, indicated that energy alternatives might offer the best short-term solution.

“Solar PV and energy efficiency enjoy short lead times relative to other energy infrastructure projects, and so have the potential to realize recovery benefits more quickly,” the 2018 DOE report read. “Energy storage can provide valuable ancillary services to the grid and complement the renewable energy generation required by local law.”

Puerto Rico’s state-run utility, PREPA, filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2017, saddled with a $9 billion debt load even before Hurricane Maria struck in September of that year. Since then, PREPA has gone through several leaders as it struggled to rebuild with billions in U.S. aid and through contracts with outside companies.

President Trump has repeatedly criticized Puerto Rican leadership, noting its accumulated debts. He has also, on occasion, also denied aid requests from the island territory.