Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in the dark — 95 percent of the island remained without power Saturday — and Hawaii’s energy industry is taking notes on how to prepare the state’s energy system to bounce back if a similar storm were to hit.
The Category 4 hurricane ripped across Puerto Rico last month, destroying homes, downing power lines and leaving the island largely without electricity. A representative from the island’s utility is saying it will take months to fully restore power.
“It’s a huge wake-up call as to just how vulnerable we are as an island community so far from the continent,” said Karl Kim, executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center. “There are huge lessons regarding preparedness and warning systems and also the importance of siting, building design, and protecting critical infrastructure like power, water, wastewater, as well as critical needed services such as hospitals and other emergency services.”
The energy systems of the two island communities share many similarities: both depend primarily on a single company for power, the majority of their power mix is made up of imported oil and most of their power plants are along the coasts.
“We need to make a concerted effort to learn more about how Puerto Rico, with its dependence on tourism and other similarities to Hawaii, recovers from this disaster,” Kim said. “The real lessons, however, for Hawaii have yet to be written, especially in terms of the pace, nature, and extent of recovery.”
Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority
>> Monopoly electric utility in Puerto Rico
>> 1.5 million customers
>> Majority of generation units near the coastline
>> 1,150 miles away from the U.S. mainland
>> In 2016, 47 percent of Puerto Rico’s power mix came from petroleum, 34 percent from natural gas, 17 percent from coal, and 2 percent from renewable energy.
Hawaiian Electric Companies
>> Monopoly electric utility on Oahu, Big Island and in Maui County
>> 460,162 customers
>> 11 of the 13 generation units on Oahu are near the coastline
>> 2,390 miles away from the U.S. mainland
>> In 2016, 67.9 percent of Hawaiian Electric Co.’s power mix on Oahu came from petroleum, 21.42 percent came from coal, 0.54 percent from biofuel, 6.01 percent from solid waste, 3.36 percent from wind and 0.77 percent from utility scale solar.
Source: Hawaiian Electric Co., The U.S. Energy Information Administration
* HECO doesn’t count the 57,000 customer-sited solar systems on Oahu. Combined customer solar would rank as the island’s third-largest power plant, providing a total of 411 megawatts of energy to the grid.
Hawaiian Electric Co. spokeswoman Shannon Tangonan said Hurricane Maria’s devastation has underscored the need for power plants to be built inland.
“This is why projects such as the Schofield Generating Station, which is expected to be operational next year, are so important,” she said. The 50-megawatt biofuel power plant is set to generate power for HECO customers. Tangonan said under emergency conditions the plant will act as an independent source of power for Army facilities in the area.
However, in the case of Puerto Rico, a major issue in powering the island post-Maria is that transmission lines, which connect power plants to distribution centers, are down.
The entire power distribution system in Puerto Rico and more than 80 percent of the high-voltage transmission network is damaged, according to the Bloomberg news service.
“While there’s no way to prevent outages from occurring in the event of a hurricane, we’ve tried to position ourselves to recover as quickly as possible,” Tangonan said.
She said Hawaiian Electric Industries, serving Maui County, Hawaii island and Oahu, has spent roughly $1.5 billion over the past several years to strengthen its energy systems.
Since 2011, HECO has spent more than $900 million replacing and upgrading equipment on Oahu, replacing 6,800 poles and 4,800 transformers.
“Among the more recent projects, we’ve replaced multiple wooden poles with steel poles along Kamehame Ridge in Hawaii Kai that can better withstand hurricane conditions,” she said.
Tangonan said the utility has cleared trees and other vegetation from around poles and power lines, noting “most storm-related outages are caused by trees and branches falling on lines and other equipment.”
Some members of the solar industry are pointing to home energy systems, equipped with batteries and solar, as a possible solution to help neighborhoods recover after hurricanes.
Colin Yost, principal at RevoluSun, said he is interested in exploring how to turn some residences into neighborhood safe houses.
“(The homes would) essentially serve as neighborhood hubs for power,” Yost said. “We’re interested in learning more about that and being a promoter of that going forward.”
The move would require a home’s solar energy system to have the capability to disconnect from the utility’s grid if the entire island grid were to go down.
“We’re working on an integrated product for hurricane resilience,” Yost said. “If you’re looking at batteries and you want to have that feature, then you have to make sure that your solar contractor is installing all of the equipment and wiring that would allow your entire house to be backed up — not just an emergency part of your house, but your whole house.”
Yost said the “self-supply” program, which encourages solar owners to purchase batteries by prohibiting them from sending excess energy into the grid, could be set up to disconnect from the grid in the event of a hurricane.
“Anybody who is getting a self-supply system and using the right kind of batteries could ask their contractors to configure it that way,” he said.