US Energy Department official sees opportunity to strengthen Caribbean grids
SAN JUAN – In his recent article, found on the Energy Department’s website, Bruce Walker, the newly appointed assistant secretary of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, says his agency and the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium are looking into improving the electric grids of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Input from that partnership holds promise that a comprehensive plan is being hashed out.
Breaking down what the department has done and hopes to carry out, Walker espouses what the federal government’s response may include for the hurricane-ravaged islands.
Given that his résume lists having led risk assessment strategies for gas-produced power service to more than three million people in New England, that experience could be an asset for an even greater number of people in the Caribbean who need that sort of leadership to, for instance, have energy backup systems put in place.
Walker, a former vice president at National Grid, one of the largest investor-owned energy companies, spent a couple of weeks in Puerto Rico in his new capacity as agency liaison alongside local and other federal officials.
In the rebuild of the island’s grid, he envisions a strengthened infrastructure supported by hundreds of problem locations that would be addressed with disaster mitigation solutions.
“There are also opportunities in the area of microgrids. We’ve identified 200 key locations for potential microgrids on Puerto Rico, such as water treatment plants and hospitals,” Walker wrote. “If fully implemented, this would represent a total of 11MW [megawatts]. At the same time we’re investigating 400 more. There may also be opportunities to use microgrids to increase grid resilience on the USVI.”
The Energy Department official added that relocating substations to less flood-prone areas is also a priority for the private industry veteran, whose agency’s stated mission includes working with the national laboratories to utilize resources more efficiently, which is where increased wind and solar use could play a role in achieving more reliable service.
Also on the department’s vision for Puerto Rico are the integration of distributed energy resources and physically strengthening the island’s energy infrastructure, which now consists of collapsed transmission lines, thousands of downed utility poles and several substations out of commission.
Walker’s account on the laudable progress achieved since the devastating weather moved on also suggests an undertaking that the goal of improved grid resiliency will be met. Despite delays, obstacles and interruptions stemming from controversy over contracts, especially the one signed with Whitefish Energy Holdings, there were successes, he said.
Restoring the main lines that feed generation from the southern part of the island to the populated north, as well as achieving distribution to all consumers are only the first steps. “There is still much to do,” he acknowledged.
And to wait for. Besides implementing “modern relay protection of the key substations, predictive modeling with improved sensing capabilities, and hardened control devices,” funds have yet to be assigned to repair the existing grid, much less revamp it. To tens of thousands of people, his statements represent realistic work that could only be carried out with resources the islands lack.
It is yet unclear how the power restoration saga will play out, given the intricacies of producing federal and local efforts that immediately tackle the need for more significant results regarding access to energy, a key factor in attempts at achieving any standard of well-being, not to mention economic growth.
Congress is amid a tax reform and spending bill showdown that could potentially end in a government shutdown, further delaying consideration of aid the islands need to have a shot at self-reliance.
If Walker and his office’s stated intentions do not materialize, citizens who were already mired in doubt will surely continue to head stateside and have a say in future discourse.