For Two Power Grid Experts, Hurricane Maria Became a Huge Experiment

During the extended blackout, these electrical engineers and their families relied on rooftop solar and battery storage—an approach they'd been advocating for years

2 min read
Photo: Sara Irizarry
Photo: Sara Irizarry

In research, sometimes the investigator becomes part of the experiment. That’s exactly what happened to Efraín O’Neill-Carrillo and Agustín Irizarry-Rivera, both professors of electrical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017. Along with every other resident of the island, they lost power in an islandwide blackout that lasted for months.

The two have studied Puerto Rico’s fragile electricity infrastructure for nearly two decades and, considering the island’s location in a hurricane zone, had been proposing ways to make it more resilient.

They also practice what they preach. Back in 2008, O’Neill-Carrillo outfitted his home with a 1.1-kilowatt rooftop photovoltaic system and a 5.4-kilowatt-hour battery bank that could operate independently of the main grid. He was on a business trip when Maria struck, but he worried a bit less knowing that his family would have power.

Irizarry-Rivera [top] wasn’t so lucky. His home in San Germán also had solar panels. “But it was a grid-tied system,” he says, “so of course it wasn’t working.” It didn’t have storage or the necessary control electronics to allow his household to draw electricity directly from the solar panels, he explains.

“I estimated I wouldn’t get [grid] power until March,” Irizarry-Rivera says. “It came back in February, so I wasn’t too far off.” In the meantime, he spent more than a month acquiring and installing batteries, charge controllers, and a new stand-alone inverter. His family then relied exclusively on solar power for 101 days, until grid power was restored.

In “How to Harden Puerto Rico’s Grid Against Hurricanes,” the two engineers describe how Puerto Rico could benefit from community microgrids made up of similar small PV systems. The amount of power they produce wouldn’t meet the average Puerto Rican household’s typical demand. But, Irizarry-Rivera points out, you quickly learn to get by with less.

“We got a lot of things done with 4 kilowatt-hours a day,” he says of his own household. “We had lighting and our personal electronics working, we could wash our clothes, run our refrigerator. Everything else is just luxuries and conveniences.”

This article appears in the November 2019 print issue as “After Maria.”

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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