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Puerto Rico renewable energy industry resurfaces

By on November 2, 2017

SAN JUAN – The misfortune of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), after Hurricane Maria destroyed its entire power grid, has been the lucky streak for the renewable energy industry.

More than a month after the storm hit the island with Category-4 winds, Prepa is only generating power at 38%, leaving an unknown number of its nearly 1.5 million customers without service at their homes and businesses, thus other alternatives to meet this essential need are being sought.

Sunnova Energy Corp., a residential solar energy provider with more than 10,000 residential clients in Puerto Rico, has already successfully installed batteries for customers to have power without needing the utility’s grid.

Sunnova CEO William John Berger predicts that in the wake of Hurricane María the industry will undergo changes and its infrastructure will be rebuilt to be more resilient. (Yoel Parrilla / CB)

In a recent interview, Sunnova’s chief executive officer, William John Berger, predicted that in the wake of Hurricane Maria and the collapse of the power system, the industry will experience changes and the utility’s infrastructure will be rebuilt to be more resilient, with options that include solar- energy storage batteries and distributed energy to become “the new power industry.”

“So, there is a short-term goal of restoring the electrical system. I’m sure Ricardo Ramos [Prepa’s executive director] is focused on that and, right now, we need batteries as well as diesel,” the Sunnova exec said. “Then there’s the long-term goal, once everything is restored, and how can we make the network more resilient so this does not happen again? We say that we don’t have to compete with Prepa, but we can cooperate and be partners. Sunnova is the company that has invested the most in energy [in Puerto Rico] in the past five years [about $150 million] because Prepa has no money.”

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In response to a question from Caribbean Business, Berger said he has asked Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to help eliminate bureaucracy that is hindering the installation of solar power systems. He noted that if Prepa were to follow the net-metering law, which establishes an expedited process to connect renewable energy systems to the power grid, things will move forward faster.

Sunnova Manager Carla Zambrana, meanwhile, explained that the company operates like a cable-TV service, where the customer makes a monthly payment for solar energy equipment installed on the roof without the need for a downpayment. She assured the company’s solar panels can produce energy at a lower price than the energy produced by Prepa.

However, these systems cannot work in blackouts unless there is an energy storage system, so Sunnova brought batteries to the island so their customers could have electricity.

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Álex Rivera, manager of Dynamic Solar, a company dedicated to installing solar equipment for Caribbean Energy, said there has been an increase in the volume of sales and people interested in buying solar panels.

Rivera did not advise individuals to rent solar energy equipment because they would end up paying less if they were to buy it. “That, in my opinion, is what a fool would do,” he said, adding that solar equipment is affordable right now.

Meanwhile, Orlando “Juapi” López, an engineer and founder of Juapi Project Services, which provides power services to residential and commercial sites and develops renewable energy projects, also said his firm has seen an increase in sales because people are spending too much on fuel for power generators.

Puerto Rico Energy Commission drafting rules to install microgrids

“We have a surge in residential sales,” he said. His firm helps customers install equipment for those who already have purchased from other suppliers, or “provides them the complete package.”

Although traditional banks are not lending money to buy solar equipment, people do so through personal loans, cooperatives or credit unions that have specific financing alternatives to install photovoltaic systems.

López said solar panels use an inverter that converts direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) so it can be used from receptacles, but these panels need voltage from Prepa as a reference. Whenever there is no Prepa power, the system requires the use of batteries with a separate inverter.

He praised the governor’s decision to convert Prepa’s structure into one that relies on microgrids and said the island can be divided in regions, with each having its own microgrid. However, like Rivera, he stressed that a project of such magnitude could be expensive. “You have to examine if it’s cost-effective or if it’s just more economic to make improvements to Prepa,” he said.

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