Modernizing Puerto Rico’s Grid

After two massive hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico three months ago, the island was left with extensive damage to its electrical infrastructure. Part of the problem was that the infrastructure was woefully inadequate to withstand a hurricane impact at all. It is possible to harden buildings and infrastructure against extreme weather, and a new plan to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid will address many of these changes that, frankly, should have been made long ago.

Among the upgrades to the power distribution system are improvements to SCADA systems. SCADA allows for remote monitoring and control of substations, switchgear, and other equipment which minimizes the need for crews to investigate problems and improves reliability. SCADA can also be used for automation on a large scale, in addition to the installation of other autonomous equipment meant to isolate faults and restore power quickly. The grid will get physical upgrades as well, including equipment like poles, wire, and substations that are designed and installed to a more rigorous standard in order to make them more wind- and flood-tolerant. Additional infrastructure will be placed underground as well, and a more aggressive tree trimming program will be put in place.

The plan also calls for some 21st-century improvements as well, including the implementation of “micro grids”. These micro grids reduce the power system’s reliance on centralized power plants by placing small generation facilities (generators, rooftop solar, etc) in critical areas, like at hospitals. Micro grids can also be used in remote areas to improve reliability where it is often impractical or uneconomical to service.

While hurricanes are inevitable in certain parts of the world, the damage that they cause is often exacerbated by poor design and bad planning. Especially in the mysterious world of power generation and distribution, a robust infrastructure is extremely important for the health, safety, and well-being of the people who rely on it. Hopefully these steps will improve Puerto Rico’s situation, especially since this won’t be the last time a major storm impacts the island.

44 thoughts on “Modernizing Puerto Rico’s Grid

  1. I don’t understand why this is a problem in the first place. It’s not like ‘getting hit by a cat 5 hurricane – frequently’ wasn’t a statistical certainty and a design constraint of any system deployed on a Caribbean island! I get the state government is in bad financial shape – mostly from mismanagement occurring 2500 km away. But it doesn’t excuse proper planning.

    If I design a house out of plastic and then build it in the Sahara, I shouldn’t have the right to complain or ask for money to rebuild it when it melts in the Sun. It’s all just silly… Someone actually has to pay for this and I have a feeling it’s going to be me – and I don’t live on the island.

    1. As I recall the place was declared bankrupt.
      And in general on the islands in the region (of all nationalities) there is an issue with corruption and incompetence in management and governance.

      And this time too, unless the federal US government pays for their new system they won’t be able to afford it.

    2. Sadly this is a bigger problem of an island that is a colony of the US and serves big company interests which don’t necessarily align with the island’s needs. Examples such as not being able to procure cheaper materials because it can’t import them from closer countries (, removing railroads that went throughout the entire island to cause a car purchase boom and many other weird cases. Having corrupt politicians in power since the first “democratically elected” (longer story) governor in the island also hasn’t helped. Series of unfortunate complex events have led to this issue.

      Add to that that PR does pay tax in various forms, they actually pay for a lot of this. How that money is redistributed is a whole ‘nother story. When you take a look at how the island’s resources have been squeezed out, it starts making sense that they wouldn’t have the best infrastructure.

    3. Poor infrastructure to begin with. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.
      Plus a lot of the PR’s people with marketable skills are already on US mainland for decently paid jobs so there is brain drain.

    4. Argue for or against anthropological climate change but just to clarify a few things. The 97% has been disproven many times and beyond cherry picking. Yes 2017 had 3 major hurricanes hit land, but had 0 for almost a decade before. Wildfires has too many variables to even get into. As for suing Exxon and buddies, there isn’t anything to sue over. They aren’t the ones who got us into this mess, they just provided the service. While it would be great to not need fossil fuels, currently we do need them. Luckily there are folks investing heavily into green energy, including companies like Exxon.

    5. 97% eh, that’s the same number of times people make up percentages in arguments isn’t it? odd coincidence.

      And incidentally, there is a difference (not to the media but in reality) between climate chance and the cause, even if it’s man made cause. The CO2 cause theory was adopted quickly even if there are some flaws with it. And then the data was adapted to fit the theory it seems, instead of doing it the scientific way.
      The problem you see is that once science becomes political the science loses and the the big mouths and pressure wins.
      And there are countless examples of that, and in ever growing number.

      Not that Trump has any sensible reason to reject the theory though, he’s just a fool who pushes something that benefits him, not knowing or caring about any detail or scientific arguments or analysis.

      1. It probably won’t help, but here are some useful references. It really is 97% or more (Nasa source, citing 18 scientific insitutions):

        CO2 is a greenhouse gas and burning fossil fuels generates CO2. This has been known about since the 19th century. It’s now at 407ppm, far higher than it’s ever been in human history. (405 for November, the low point being in October, but the average will be about 407 in 2017).

        To explain anything else means you have to find a more convincing reason why the 407ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere isn’t causing the (global) warming we observe and expect while the other claimed sources are even though they’re don’t provide any evidence for it (e.g. the lack of sun spot activity).

        Cherry picking is what happens when you use data with noise to project a contrary conclusion to the observable trends. Climate change deniers do this all the time and simply reflecting the word ‘cherry picking’ back at the 97% isn’t an argument.

        Now, you may think that the warming pause argument from 1998 to 2013 or so is unique, but it’s not. In the early 1990s other skeptics at the time argued for a warming pause (I have at least one example from a New Scientist article in 1992) during that period, but when temperatures started to rise again in the later 1990s (culminating in the high of 1998), it was forgotten only to be raised in the following decade.

        Part of the problem of how people choose sources of data is reflected in the language they use to express the concepts. For example “climate chance” is not a real phrase. The science indeed has become political and therefore we should consider the most likely cause of it. Who is likely to be most motivated: Scientists? Unlikely.

        Or the fossil fuel industry which still generates at least 90% of the energy we use? What’s the likelihood they’re trying to protect their business by lobbying the way the tobacco industry did?

        Oh look, a young James Hansen in 1982(ish) testifying that global warming will eventually have the impacts we’re now seeing.

        1. Random issue: Hothouse effect works by upper atmosphere greenhouse gasses, CO2 is heavier than air, and on earth where we have air that is lighter, the stuff hovers low where it’s consumed and converted by plants and plankton you see, that’s the ecology of planet earth. So to take a model based on another planet (originally the idea came from a planetary scientist from NASA) without a mainly nitrogen atmosphere and projecting it on a completely different chemical system is a bit.. tricky.

          And be honest, if you were a scientist in the field today, would you dare questioning it? Even with a scientific basis. You’d ruin your life and career would you not? Be honest, apart from if it’s valid or not, you have to admit it’s extremely politicized and would be impossible to safely argue about, even if it’s for small adjustments to the popular theory it would be extremely risky to not keep your mouth shut.

          Personally I think for instance all the plastic in the ocean disrupting the natural processes could even be a bigger factor in climate chance than the actual CO2 released. So I think we should address all pollution instead of focusing on just CO2 because it’s ‘hot’. Because if we throw everything at just CO2 and that’s just a factor/symptom then we are in deep water (see what I did there :).

          It just makes sense that ANYTHING we massively throw into nature (or should I saw ‘tow out of the environment’) is bad, all the pollution, it’s obvious to a child that you can’t sustain that kind of behavior.

        2. What impacts?
          The global warmists have made a lot of predictions and none have come true.
          Al Gore even stated last year that there are now fish swimming in the streets of Honolulu and Miami.

          PS – There used to be a LOT higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere….

      1. I don’t bow to authoritarian commands like that. I didn’t push the politics, I basically just quoted the science, the same kind of science hackaday readers depend upon day in and day out for everything on this site. If you don’t like it, get some representative facts, reason and evidence to support your view. Thanks for reading my comment anyway.

        1. Every comment on this article that lays the blame for PR’s post-Hurricane Power problems or argues that it isn’t a federal responsibility to support PR is a political statement if the underlying context isn’t covered. I’m personally OK with that – if their politics affects their view of the problem, it’s OK to express it.

          However, proposing that we take climate change seriously is not a political statement, because the problem is dire and our efforts thus far are inadequate. That’s the plain and simple scientific position. It is a practical issue for hackaday readers, because it will affect them. There are possibly (likely) hackaday readers from Houston or California who have lost their livelihoods due to flooding and wildfires. It’s objective and technical to raise this as an issue, because their loss is our loss to the community and fixing it is a problem solving exercise, which is what this post is about.

          For every technical problem, it is essential that the correct factors are abstracted because otherwise as engineers and hackers we pursue inadequate solutions.

          Now back to the question. If you instruct someone to do something, by definition you’re issuing a command. If it’s based on statements like “no-one wants to hear what you’re saying” the you’re using your claimed ability to speak for the hackaday community in an authoritarian manner. Then it’s authoritarian by definition.

          Just because my comments have piqued your sensibilities that’s no grounds for applying that kind of rhetoric. That’s not a command: you can keep on doing it if you like, you just don’t have grounds that’s all.

          1. He’s ranting about his pet peeve in a thread about electrical grids. He’s about as relevant as someone ranting about white genocide in a thread about electric cars.

      2. The HaD management clearly wants to get the HaD readership to go political, sure it’s not a good thing, but in comment sections on articles specifically put out known to to evoke such comments you can’t complain to the people making such comments, avoid the article and complain to HaD management instead.

  2. Sometimes we forget Puerto Rico is part of USA.
    That being said, as it belongs to USA, there is money. It just need to be correcty applied.

    I do not think aggressive tree trimming will help. Strong trees help, even if a little, to reduce wind speed. Of course, they need to put the wires far from the trees.

    And that is the main point : the place suffers with hurricanes. Utilities like water and power should be all undergroung, and with the necessary precautios to avoid problems with tlooding or whatever. Rebuild with “stronger power poles”, micro-grids, or whatever, while ignoring the reason of the problems and the better ways to avoid them is just wasting money in something that will break in the next hurricane and have to be rebuilt again, and again, etc….

    1. The cost implications of trying to put all the grid all under ground would immense,
      I’m from the UK so we rarely get anything over 100mph winds, but it’s usually rotten poles or trees that cause problems on the overhead line. I have yet to see a healthy pole snap off because of wind. Perhaps it’s debris in the hurricanes that is hammering the network

      However having been to the states it seems common practice to put EHV,HV,LV and telecoms on the same pole increasing the loading and complexity of repair, maybe that’s why they suffer more with damage with hurricanes

          1. You both forget that the new lower tax alone and lower federal income that is the result will mean heavy cuts in federal funding to anything non-military (and telecom it seems).
            And the island itself lacks the funds to do even the basics.
            So unless the Puerto ricans send out a drilling team to Antarctica… there’s a bit of a problem with funds.

      1. Urban cities in the U.S. such as Chicago has an upper and lower level. The lower level was the original level, and the upper level is built on top of the infrastructure below. So there is no need to place things underground if you build up.

    2. The Low Voltage lines distribution(480 ish) can be easily underground. The High Voltage main lines are much harder (several thousand volts) to run underground. The Cost to do so is high! So improving the poles and lines that come from the power generation plants is the most cost effective solution. They are ran in “right of ways” that is the power companies responsibility to keep trees and brush from growing too close/ high to limit the one that can fall into the main lines (there’s no switch to turn off a section of these lines, you have to power down the plant or genny that they are fed from). It sounds like the PR power company wasn’t doing the maintenance that it needed to a lot of it’s infrastructure let alone Trimming Trees. Yes, in theory these are not new design issues. But it’s not the folks that live there’s that caused the issue, this is poor management from the power company and Local gov (and fed gov). Let’s do better now and get the power stable for the people moving forward. Then sue, indite etc the idiots that caused this mess!

      1. The HV lines are ok. In fact, they mostly run from mountaintop to mountaintop, and from what I saw on vacation this summer, they were clear of vegetation just from height. The LV lines? Complete catastrophe. This is pretty typical:

        On top of that, you have lots of leaning poles from either shifting soil, vehicle collisions, or just plain bad installation, a decent amount of power theft, and most of all, no maintenance whatsoever.

        PR is poor, poor, poor. Central America poor. There’s lots of reasons for that, some imposed by the US (like the Jones Act) but this isn’t a place for politics. The fact is, PR doesn’t have the money for a US style grid, and right now it doesn’t have the culture to maintain one if it was dropped on them today.

      2. Climate change WILL come, not because CO² but because Ocean water pollution, aggravated by ChemTrails now stated to be Geo-Engineering after years of calling them “Conspiracy theory (though as visible as the controlled demolition of WTC 1,2,7… no planes needed, except for dramatic purposes).

        In 10-15 years the icebergs of the Polar Caps will no longer compensate the rising temperature of the water… Meanwhile everyone is looking up, not down. CO² is an excellent culprit: Everyone knows C=², everyone then is an expert in Meteorology… a perfect mix to push that car to the academic business.

        There is a problem, Yes… And it’s overlooked.
        Insisting on the obfuscating reasons… is not helpful.
        … What to wait 15 years? By then the discourse will be:

        – “See? We warned, it’s the CO², and the CO² is YOUR fault.”
        That not being entirely true… nor the cause of the temperature without Ice to compensate… (Tons of water melt the Ice, not grams of Air.)

        1. The radiative forcing from the extra (407-285) = 122ppm of CO2 is 1.9W/m2 at the moment, enough to raise the temperature of the oceans over decadal timescales enough to melt ice-caps and destabilise the WAIS. 1.9W/m2 is not really that much compared with the 600W/m2 to 1000W/m2 of solar power across most of the earth’s latitudes (+/- 53°).

          The question to ask about Chemtrails at that level is why they can cause the effects you describe when CO2 doesn’t even though CO2 emissions are orders of magnitude greater than the purported chemtrail gasses.

          I like the use of superscript for CO2!

    3. Rog, I supervised the installation of about 200 miles of underground Cable TV distribution in Levittown, a suburb of San Juan in the 80’s. The electrical and landline telephone systems were already underground.. I havent heard but I bet its intact.

    1. Agreed, they have both hands out begging for more US tax dollars – yet gave out – with NO shame – a hundred million dollars or so in “bonuses” to the same incompetent government employees that have been responsible for their failing infrastructure to begin with !

    2. I’ve been to PR many times over many years and I have family ties there. PR has evolved into a Progressive Socialist disaster. PR is becoming a Cuba-Clone. Big Government + Unions = Corruption there. Out of control government Entitlements buy votes.

    3. It’s the same on all regional islands I hear, the french ones and the dutch ones etcetera have the same issue.
      Which means that all repair aid has to be monitored on the ground to the last dollar and not be managed by the locals. And some parent countries do just that.

    1. The hurricane was just the icing on the cake. Power goes out in PR all the time, for fairly innocuous reasons. Malfunctions that would be routed around in minutes (if not instantly, or prevented entirely) in the states results in days or weeks long outages in parts of PR constantly — and that’s WITHOUT a natural disaster.

      You can’t think of PR as an American state. The culture is entirely different. PR is a latino state. You need to think of it like Mexico or Central America. I don’t know if it could BE any other way. If I lived in a tropical paradise like PR, my work ethic would go to crap pretty quickly, when 340 or so days a year are beach days, and the beach is right there.

      On top of that, having the power out for a short time isn’t a big deal, normally. The weather is never cold enough that people can freeze, and most people don’t have AC in the first place other than in bedrooms, so they are acclimated to the heat. The idiot box stops blinking at you, but you can still listen to a battery powered radio, your BBQ works fine, there are coconuts and mangos in your back yard, and the beach doesn’t run on the mains.

      (The real lesson is, I wouldn’t FEEL like my work ethic was crap, because it would be normal for the environment. Calling it crap is a value judgment based on my current perspective.)

  3. The idea of building a lot more small scale local generation makes a lot of sense to me in an area so prone to hurricanes. Instead of relying on large dirty power stations running on fossil fuels, build local small scale grids using renewables and battery storage so that if the storm takes down the main power lines, the local grid can stay working with all that local capacity.

      1. If you don’t tie the micro grids into the main grid, Then yes you lose the advantages of centralized power generation. If you tie the micro grids in you get a system that is more stable to and continues to operate with failures. When the local power generation is coming from something like solar or wind mounted on the building you convert unused or minimally used roof space into generation capacity. If you add something like a central battery bank for a town or block you have a local grid that can handle most of the power needs for the buildings in the area. You tie that into the main grid to share the extra produced with the area’s that don’t produce enough. If one of the supply lines from the power plants are damaged by a storm you can still route power there from another plant or town. If the towns can generate enough power you can make the power plants smaller (less startup costs) and makes you less dependent on the most fragile part of the system the main haul power lines.

        1. What you almost certainly want is an efficient central plant infrastructure (55% net thermodynamic efficiency and somewhat “low” pollution) with small “peaker” installations located close to the point of use. That way you don’t have to build central infrastructure to handle peak demand. You use the peakers to shave the, uh, peaks. In an extended outage, you could run the peakers wide open and use small, localized rolling blackouts to keep the total demand under what the rig can produce. These units are somewhat common in California, though hard to get permits for today. An aeroderivative turbine and genset are mounted in a freight container and hooked up outside of industrial plants, for instance. If you see a trailer or container with big wires coming out and a fat natural gas line going in, it’s a peaker (two big honking water pipes means it’s a trailer mounted datacenter). And since it’s not a fixed structure, it doesn’t even have to have a building permit (except for the electrical interconnect, but that’s easy). It does have to have a California Air Resources Board permit. These are harder to get now because smallish turbines are pretty nasty. And the efficiency sucks – sub 20%. Only makes financial sense to use them for peak shaving.

  4. Eye opener time. The upgrades were paid for several *years* ago by a bond issued by the PR power authority / gov’t. The $ and the upgrades seem to have never actually met. The authority / gov’t attempted to default on the bonds, but the courts stopped them.

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