Seismic changes in Puerto Rico harbor a great opportunity
As hurricanes and earthquakes expose a fragile electric grid, renewables make a compelling case for the island’s power generation needs.
With beautiful tropical blue water, Puerto Rican beaches rank among the best in the world. Unfortunately, hurricanes and seismic activity make this paradise island a not-so-appealing place to warm up during the winter months. The electric grid is already fragile from the destructive pummeling of Hurricane Maria, and seismic activity is further exposing the unreliability of the island’s electricity generation system. It’s now more critical than ever to push for more renewables — not only to help the environment and conserve the water used to cool power plants, but also to create jobs in a weak Puerto Rican economy and to reduce the possibility of accidental disasters.
Since Dec. 28, 2019, a daily average of 36 seismic events has been registered in the Puerto Rican zone with a magnitude equal to or greater than 2.5 — the level that people can feel (see Figure 1 below). Five of those events surpassed the magnitude of 5.5, the threshold above which earthquakes can damage buildings, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Figure 1. From December 18, 2019 to January 23, 2020, a total of 946 seismic events (with magnitudes from 2.5 to 6.4) affected severely the southwestern part of Puerto Rico. The red circles in the figure indicate the locations of their epicenters (Data sources: USGS Earthquake Catalog 2020, US NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information 2020).
Puerto Ricans should not have to worry about accidental disasters at conventional or nuclear power plants — including explosions in carbon or diesel plant boilers, spillage of nuclear waste, or natural gas leakage. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan is a clear example of why nuclear energy would be a risky proposition in Puerto Rico, given the island’s seismic potential — the nuclear option simply does not make sense economically, environmentally and from a reliability perspective.
Puerto Rico needs to decrease its dependence on non-renewable fuel sources. In 2019, the island produced the vast majority of its electricity generation with imported fossil fuels. Petroleum accounted for 40 percent of that total, natural gas 39 percent and coal 18 percent, according to the 2019 report of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Puerto Rico does not possess reserves of petroleum, natural gas, or coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, all the fuel is purchased from overseas: oil from the U.S. mainland, gas from Trinidad and Tobago, and coal from Colombia (EIA, 2019).
In addition to import costs, power plants using fossil fuels consume enormous quantities of water — in 2015, these plants withdrew 4.65 million gallons a day (Mgal/day) of freshwater and 1,701.11 Mgal/day of saline water, according to the United States Geological Service (USGS, 2020). Another negative issue is the increased pollution — in 2016, CO2 emissions generated by sources on the island that used fossil fuels totaled 19 million metric tons, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported (EIA, 2020).
Currently, only 2.3 percent of the electricity generation in Puerto Rico corresponds to renewables, such as wind and solar. Yet ample wind, sun and hydrokinetic (from the motions of a body of water) energies can be used without the concerns surrounding explosive materials, or the possibility of nuclear waste finding its way into the island’s surrounding ocean.
If the United States were to produce only 20 percent of the electricity in Puerto Rico with renewables, we could generate more than 20,000 jobs, under the assumption that jobs in the renewable energy field would be created at the same rate as in the continental United States. Puerto Rico would also save 0.93 Mgal/day of freshwater — while delivering a more reliable power grid, without worries of explosions or environmental spoils on one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Luciano Castillo, PhD
Kenninger Chair Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems
School of Mechanical Engineering
College of Engineering, Purdue University
Walter Gutierrez, PhD
President, Eco Power Engineering and Analytics LLC