For Caribbean islands plunged into darkness after hurricanes Irma and Maria, more resilient, small-scale electric systems powered by the sun are looking increasingly attractive. Transforming a grid, though, doesn’t come cheap.
In making the case for so-called microgrids, environmental nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute pointed to solar installations on the Turks and Caicos islands that remained largely intact while the local utility reported more than 1,200 poles down. That was the case on Richard Branson’s Necker Island, too. Even Bruce Walker, the nominee to lead the Energy Department’s electricity office, hailed Puerto Rico’s devastated grid as an opportunity to test technologies that’ll make it more resilient to storms. Governor Ricardo Rossello said Friday that he’s considering microgrids.
The catch is the price tag. By Rocky Mountain Institute’s estimates, it would cost roughly $250 million to build about 90 megawatts of solar and storage across a chain of Caribbean islands. That’s enough to power an estimated 15,000 U.S. homes. While it may be sufficient for the Turks and Caicos, about a million households live in storm-battered and debt-ridden Puerto Rico.
Sure, there’s a lot of interest in small-scale power systems now, said Yayoi Sekine, an energy storage analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “But without state support or external funding, it’s very difficult to actually see community microgrids flourish or have any investment at all.”
Some funding efforts are under way. Earlier this month, the Energy Department said it was awarding as much as $50 million to its national laboratories to research technologies that would make the nation’s power grids more resilient. And even before Irma and Maria came along, the Rocky Mountain Institute had…