Where is solar heading in the Americas? While this popular energy source is often linked to hot spots like California, Long-time solar expert Abe Issa is seeing telling signs of growing in Puerto Rico, thanks to an ongoing two-year study from the U.S. Department of Energy and a variety of national laboratories.
The purpose of the study was straightforward: Puerto Rico had an opportunity to rebuild its power infrastructure following Hurricane Maria in 2017. With considerable investment funds from agencies like HUD and FEMA, plus experts around the world, a project began to transition Puerto Rico to more renewable energy, particularly solar energy, as part of its rebuilding. The first results of the study show how that project is progressing, and within are several key lessons for renewable energy investors and solar companies looking to expand their presence, especially internationally. Here’s what we’ve learned.
States and countries alike benefit from exclusion zones
One of the first steps for the Puerto Rico project was creating a map charting exclusion zones and potential areas for solar investment. This is a particularly important starting point that doesn’t get enough attention, especially for corporate or agricultural solar power. Many areas can’t be used for renewable energy because of land slope, habitat areas, environmentally protected zones, proximity to rivers or bodies of water, and so on.
Abe Issa notes that overlaying maps with a little GIS (Geographic Information Systems) work is a very efficient start to solar planning to quickly narrow down what locations in an area work best for solar. Their usefulness extends to wind power too, especially when finding offshore locations that make ideal spots for plant development.
Distributed grids appear to be the future
Puerto faces a key problem when it comes to power infrastructure: Hurricanes create a frequent risk that large power installations can be demolished. This isn’t an uncommon problem when looking at broad solar investment. In California, wildfires and uneven demand can threaten similar blackouts. In other states, flooding or freezing storms may pose similar risks, depending on the power infrastructure.
In Puerto Rico and elsewhere, we’re seeing that the solution is more distributed grids that rely less on a central source of power. In California, the use of microgrids has grown increasingly common. These microgrids are designed to power specific developments and neighborhoods without losing power if other parts of the grid fail and shut down, creating solar resilience that hadn’t existed before.
With Puerto Rico, Abe Issa notes that grid distribution is becoming a more formal process, with a focus on placing small power plants throughout greater areas with built-in independence that avoids cascading failures. New techniques like “virtual power plants” allow for unprecedented grid control and response to catastrophes that could become the norm for renewable energy in the coming years. In both cases, the results show a way forward for energy resilience and blackout avoidance.
Do investors need to worry about energy justice?
Energy justice is a phrase Abe Issa sees appearing more and more frequently and is one of the central parts of the Puerto Rico study. For investors, energy justice represents a check similar to environmental compliance in other regions, but with a focus on societal impact. Key goals include:
- Equitable access to energy no matter the location (rural vs. urban, for example)
- Equalizing resilience – some parts of the grid should not be automatically sacrificed because those neighborhoods are viewed as less important
- Avoiding energy projects that cause detrimental environmental or health effects
- Encouraging local economies via energy projects
Energy justice broadly supports renewable energy projects and many of the advantages of solar power align closely with energy justice goals. That makes this new perspective a useful partnership for growing solar energy’s presence in a variety of markets.
New solar energy products emerge while standbys remain reliable
Abe Issa also sees Puerto Rico as a testing ground for new technologies that can become part of many solar investment projects in the coming years, diversifying the industry and providing more chances for growth. Two examples noted so far are utility-scale batteries and more advanced inverter controls for solar systems. These improve the stability of energy grids, help manage repairs and construction phases, and address some of the risks of renewable energy reliability. On the software side, better grid simulation software is quickly on the rise, too.
However, traditional investments retain benefits in newer markets, too. The Puerto Rico study also concluded that rooftop solar remained one of the best investments, thanks to its excellent cost-to-output ratio, durability, and abundance of useful locations.