Can Waste-to-Energy Microgrids be the Missing Link for Puerto Rico?

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IQgrid’s Myles Mangram urges Puerto Rico to consider waste-to-energy microgrids as it rebuilds post-Hurricane Maria. The technology can simultaneously take care of two problems characteristic of storm-damaged areas: lack of power and an accumulation of waste.

On September 6, Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico as a powerful Category 5 storm, plunging 1 million residents into darkness. Two weeks later, on September 20, Hurricane Maria struck the island head-on as a devastating Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds that left 100 percent of the 3.4 million U.S. citizens without power. Nearly three months after Maria, over 30 percent of those citizens remain without power. It is therefore understandable why key stakeholders want to first focus on quickly rebuilding the electrical infrastructure status quo.

Unfortunately, Puerto Rico’s debt-plagued 44-year old grid power plant infrastructure (more than double the industry standard of 18 years), was already on life support long before the hurricanes completely wiped it out. In that regard, it had been subject to chronic intermittency and frequent power outages, with an annual average of around 10 hours of outage per customer—compared to a U.S. average of just over 3 hours a year. It also produced some of the most expensive electricity in the U.S. at about $0.22 per kWh—compared to a U.S. average of about $0.13. Ultimately, these status quo electric power operations had become unsustainable to operate, with the island’s sole utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), filing a $9 billion bankruptcy just two months prior to Irma and Maria.

These circumstances were not just a portent of doom, but could be a harbinger of what’s to come—if the powers that be (the Financial Oversight & Management Board for Puerto Rico, PREPA, FEMA, the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, and the government of Puerto Rico) simply decide to “rebuild” for the sake of expediency and adherence to bottom-line political pressures.

To that end, numerous well-intentioned government, private and academic pundits have weighed in, and argue that to more quickly restore power to the devastated people of Puerto Rico the focus needs to remain on restoring the existing electrical infrastructure. In large measure, they are correct. The immediate needs of the people demand the most expeditious solution. At the same time, this solution questions the wisdom of simply repeating ineffective actions. It is indeed this very type of short-sighted (albeit well-meaning) thinking that evokes the Albert Einstein-attributed maxim: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

This evokes another popular maxim attributed to Fox TV cartoon character Homer Simpson, “Do you want the job done right or do you want it done fast.” For the sake of the people of Puerto Rico, the unequivocal answer should be both.

Where this status quo outlook additionally falls short is in its failure to fully recognize the true power and promise of microgrids to help address the immediate and long-term power restoration and rebuilding needs of the Puerto Rico constituency. For instance, microgrid gurus, such as Navigant Research’s Peter Asmus, argue that microgrids in these circumstances have the capability of more rapid grid restoration while making island systems more resilient in the long-run. By analogy, comparisons can be made to post-war Europe’s total devastation of its power grid, which led to the reimagining and relative quick rebuilding of a new power grid that is more advanced and more resilient than the current U.S. grid.

Alternative microgrid vision

This suggested re-imagined microgrid vision comprises the ability of microgrids to immediately address Puerto Rico’s pressing power restoration concerns. This includes quickly restoring power for emergency and essential services and the rebuilding of critical power infrastructure that is vital to the near- and long-term survival of the island’s residential and business consumers.

Any alternative energy focus in support of grid rebuilding efforts has thus far been placed almost exclusively on solar systems/microgrids. And while this alternative holds significant promise, it is also rife with limitations, as highlighted in several insightful recent articles, including Dr. Peter Fox-Penner’s article “Why solar ‘microgrids’ are not a cure-all for Puerto Rico’s power woes” (Nov. 8, 2017) and Peter Fairley’s “Why solar microgrids may fall short in replacing the Caribbean’s devastated power systems” (Oct. 13, 2017). Notably, articles such as these bring to light the fact that most of Puerto Rico’s solar systems infrastructure were also decimated during the storms.

At the same time, another vital solution — waste-to-energy microgrids — has been critically overlooked. Advanced waste-to-energy microgrids generally include some combination of anaerobic digestion, cogeneration (combined heat and power) or fuel cell technologies, and possibly gas or battery storage. They are capable of efficiently turning large amounts of organic, human, and animal waste into electrical and thermal (heat) power. They are also capable of integrating other distributed energy resources like solar PV and diesel generators—resources which are already common to remote locations and islands like Puerto Rico.

Waste-to-energy microgrids primed and ready

Waste-to-energy microgrid solutions are available in scalable, turnkey, containerized, microgrid-in-a-box configurations. The foundational technologies for these microgrids are primed and ready for immediate deployment to areas like Puerto Rico and similarly challenged areas such as the recently devastated U.S. Virgin Islands. These technologies are being spearheaded by next generation waste-to-energy systems innovators like the U.K.’s SEaB Energy, and supported by forward-thinking global energy and power storage giants such as Schneider Electric, NEC Energy Solutions, and Tesla Energy.

Not only do these systems have the potential to address many of Puerto Rico’s electricity challenges, they also provide a multi-benefit solution to the crisis-level waste management issues that are typical of areas stricken by calamitous events such as Hurricane Maria. Areas traumatized by these natural disasters, according to the international journal Waste Management, can accumulate up to 15-years of solid waste in just a few days. To give this some perspective, Hurricanes Charley and Katrina in the U.S. respectively accumulated 2.2 million tons and 29.5 million tons of unsanitary, disease causing, and unsightly waste. Puerto Rico is now going on 8 weeks of inadequate waste mitigation and disposal, and continues to generate about 8,500 tons of ‘garbage’ each day.

Much of this waste, utilizing waste-to-energy microgrids, can rapidly and effectively be applied to help power facilities that are most desperately in need, such as: health facilities providing vitally needed medical services; stores that provide critical necessities such as food and water; and fire and police stations which deliver essential emergency and safety services. Beyond this, these waste-to-energy microgrids can additionally contribute to the longer-term reliability and resiliency of Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure as part of an inter-connected smarter grid.

Contributing to a virtuous cycle

While this proposed type of waste-to-energy technology may require significant capital expenditures, these costs could be subsidized by portions of the U.S. government’s Puerto Rebuild electricity allocations and recouped within a few years. The costs could also be underwritten by private enterprises through no upfront cost power purchase agreements (backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government) or by equity investments from a growing universe of ‘impact investors.’ These systems could also be aggregated and securitized via public and/or private financial mechanisms (e.g. green bonds, yieldcos, energy REITs, etc.) to achieve additional economic optimization, as proposed in Dr. Mahesh Bhave’s forward-looking “Federation of Microgrids: A Moral and Business Necessity.”

While the proposed waste-to-energy microgrid solution has its own challenges, it can nonetheless contribute to a virtuous cycle of sustainable electric power for Puerto Rico. This solution could be strategically combined with current efforts to restore and improve existing electrical infrastructure, and present and planned solar system/microgrid infrastructure developments. In tandem, strategic waste-to-energy deployments can help to address the immediate “pain” and help to break the “insane” status quo cycle of long-term electrical service that is far beneath the needs, dignity, and birthright of any U.S. citizen.

Myles Mangram is CEO of IQgrid, a U.S.-based microgrid development and microgrids-as-a-service company. He is also an adjunct professor for the Doctor of Management, Environmental & Social Sustainability Studies program at Colorado Technical University.

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  1. Thanks an interesting piece Myles.

    I’ve reported on plenty of waste-to-energy technologies that have come and go (molten metal, gasification, electric arcs), so count me as wary of your proposal to bank Puerto Rico’s future on it. But I would love to be proven wrong!

    Re the hat-tip to my article in IEEE Spectrum (“Why solar microgrids may fall short in replacing the Caribbean’s devastated power systems”). You’re right that I pointed out some limits to solar + battery microgrids as a solution to Puerto Rico’s energy challenges. Just one caveat: I did note that solar infrastructure had been damaged by this summer’s hurricanes, but it’s probably a tad strong to say that “most of Puerto Rico’s solar systems infrastructure were also decimated during the storms.”

    Chris Shelton, vice president and CTO for AES, recently told me that their 24-MW Illumina solar farm suffered roughly 6 percent physical damage. He suggested that “weatherizing” PV farms to survive hurricanes (AES’ was rated for Category 4) would require only “minor design changes” that would make them “marginally more expensive.” In other words Hurricanes are probably not a deal breaker for PV.

    Cheers, Peter

    • Hi Peter,
      Thanks for the comment and the open mind. I did research later about the AES facility surviving the storm. Others were not so lucky. And, there’s still that waste thing. Former Puerto Rico Mayor and Senator, Hector O’Neil noted in an article in Carribbean Business that “Puerto Rico’s worst problem won’t be its economic downturn in the next 10 years. It won’t be either its water and sewer system or its roads. The worst problem will be waste management and disposal.” This was over five years ago and things have only gotten much worse. The proposed waste-to-energy solution I suggest addresses both power and waste challenges in an even more resilient platform than solar infrastructure. I’m not saying that solar and storage won’t be important. An “enhanced” solar/storage infrastructure will indeed be a critical part of Puerto Rico’s bolstered power grid. I’m just saying that waste-to-energy mcirgrids should also be a serious part of the ‘Puerto Rico Rebuild’ conversation.
      Dr. Mangram

  2. I agree that Waste-to Energy should be part of the solution on Puerto Rico. Biomass Gassifiers can use wood chipped from trees and structures, and the biodigestor/ biogas options are good for waste organics as well. Additionally, Puerto Rico has excellent wind assets, and micro-hydro / pumped-hydro possibilities as well. The latter two technologies also can also incorporate energy storage assets within the system without adding and relying solely on electrochemical storage. There has never been a better infrastructure rebuilding case for Microgrids than what exists now in Puerto Rico. It would be not only insane, but more time consuming and far more expensive to rebuild the broken central generation model that existed there. It invites further catastrophe with very little provisions for resilience, and more single points of failure.
    What is needed most in PR is for current politics to get out of the way and allow Puerto Rico to be rebuilt largely by a workforce of its own people for the benefit of its own people. What will it take for this to happen? Is it even possible, with the current Head of the US DOE being Rick Perry?? Can Prepa be part of a force that would build microgrid networks and allow cooperative ownership and peer to peer energy transactions? These are all parts of the insanity that we and Puerto Rico are up against. Let’s get politics out of the way and rebuild from the bottom up, organically, and middle down. There is no place in modern society for massively expensive dirty and inefficient central generation facilities. Put a band aid on what’s left of the old infrastructure and use it for what can easily serve, and only then as backup power.

  3. we have close cycle modular technology to produce electricity from waste at a very affordable price , we also have battery energy storage in case of power outage .
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