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Community Engagement Essential to Building Puerto Rico Grid Resilience

May 4, 2023
The importance of community is at the forefront in Puerto Rico. With a massive reconstruction of the grid underway, it is not just about replacing poles and lines, but re-designing how this lifeline serves the communities to which it is connected.
The electric grid is more than a means to power electrical devices. It is an essential component of the very foundation of what makes civil society function, and has been identified by FEMA as a community lifeline. This means that electricity, like water, fuel and transportation, are among the things that without which the rest of society does not function. But the grid is also at a crossroads with unprecedented funding to modernize and decarbonize the ways in which we power our lives. At the center of all of this are communities, each unique in their energy needs, disaster vulnerability, and capacities to cope with outages and energy price fluctuations. Because of this, community needs to be central to strategies for grid resilience and modernization.

The engineering aspects are often dictated by the physics of generating, storing, and moving electricity. But the demand that it serves is highly variable, and the importance of each electron’s destination is outside of the purview of engineering and the laws of physics. From a technical perspective, it is crucial to ensure that all users have the power needed because it can be difficult to distinguish between levels of criticality. There are, however, situations, where we can identify the need for incremental levels of resiliency, particularly in the case of a disruptive event. For example, a grocery store that is the only one that serves the community and surrounding communities may itself be a critical lifeline. An area with higher rates of chronic disease burden may be more susceptible to health impacts from extreme heat in the aftermath of a disaster and subsequent outage.  Solutions like infrastructure hardening, energy storage and microgrids can all help mitigate outsized impacts, but the right technology in the right location requires community input to help target these strategies.

There are tradeoffs in different approaches that also require community input. For instance, large scale microgrids may take years to develop, design, fund, and build. It may be faster to consider back-up systems for key facilities, at least in the interim. Deployment of solar panels and other clean energy resources may be impacted by other investments in grid modernization. Pairing specific solutions with broader infrastructure requires more integrated resource planning, and community stakeholder engagement is essential to ensure that the whole picture is understood, and that strategies are a dialogue between communities and utilities.

Engagement in the Context of Puerto Rico          

The importance of community is at the forefront in Puerto Rico. With a massive reconstruction of the grid underway, it is not just about replacing poles and lines, but re-designing how this lifeline serves the communities to which it is connected.

Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and now Fiona focused the attention of the nation on the impacts of a crumbling electric infrastructure on the economic, social, and physical health of Puerto Rico residents. After the initial shock of the effects of the hurricane dissipated, the underlying failures to maintain an effective grid are now even more painfully clear.

Every resident of the island sees the effects. The average resident experiences more than ten outages annually, in contrast to those on the mainland that typically experience just over one. For businesses and residences, this leads to spoiled food and ruined inventory, raising costs and reducing revenues. Meanwhile, in 2019, electricity costs represented about 7% of the typical Puerto Rican’s income, more than three times as those living on the mainland.

These deficiencies are the result of decades of under-investment, lack of maintenance, strategic missteps, and brutal natural disasters. Meeting the task entails immediate response and long-term planning. In the short term, this is fixing broken devices. In the medium term, we need to redesign the grid to meet industry standards. Throughout the process, we need to proactively identify opportunities to use advanced technologies to provide innovative solutions.

LUMA is addressing these needs through infrastructure planning, but also through developing community engagement processes in order to co-develop ideas and strategies. For modernizing the grid. LUMA is currently establishing partnerships for stakeholder coordination for Integrated Resource Planning. LUMA is also engaging with universities, community non-profits, and other providers of essential services like hospitals to develop strategies for deployment of new technologies like microgrids to ensure broader community resilience. LUMA is executing STEM education programming with partners such as LEAP+E, including Impulsando tu Futuro, a project where LUMA’s women engineers are teaming with groups of high school girls to build and race electric vehicles. This engagement can help align efforts of community groups, government institutions, and the grid operator to provide higher levels of resiliency and sustainability for all.

The commitment to do this is just one more reminder that communities are also where grid operators’ employees live their lives and build a future for themselves and their loved ones. Each is an ambassador to their community as well as a stakeholder in the impacts of the investments made into the grid. Employee engagement is as critical an investment as other aspects of grid resilience and modernization strategies.

This outreach is just the beginning. With grid investments meant to last generations, the community partnerships must also be developed well into the future through ongoing engagement, development of advisory boards, and creation of other mechanisms to ensure that community resilience is ultimately community centric.

As our electricity generation and delivery systems continue to evolve, the impacts of grid decisions on communities will continue to grow. Developing new models of engagement and collaboration with communities will help ensure mutually beneficial decisions amidst the unprecedented investments being made to decarbonize and build more resilience into our electric grid.

Daniel Kushner is director of resiliency strategy, and Jeff Schlegelmilch is a principal advisor at LUMA Energy.

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