Hurricane Maria: time for a rethink

Sometimes disasters offer an opportunity to rebuild back better.  In effect, while no-one would wish it on the people who emerge  battered, bruised, and bloodied by the event, the more destructive the disaster perhaps the greater the opportunity.  But to build back better you have to think seriously outside the box. In fact, you need to be outside the box—otherwise you can’t see for looking.

Puerto Rico now has a unique opportunity to completely rethink its electrical power system. The electricity grid that has been destroyed by hurricane Maria was already on the point of collapse. It was a rundown leftover from the last century:  diesel generators burning expensive imported fuel, old power stations badly maintained; transmission lines falling apart; distribution lines propped up on wooden poles and tangled through the streets of San Juan.

There are now much better ways of providing electricity to urban areas. Over the last ten years the cost of wind power and solar photovoltaic energy has fallen exponentially.  These renewable energy technologies are now by far the cheapest way to provide electricity to households—both in large cities and rural communities.

Not only are solar and wind the most economic options, distributed energy systems strengthen resilience, and ensure that life-saving services are still functional after catastrophic events.

First off, ALL important service infrastructure MUST have independent photovoltaic systems capable of stand-alone operation: that’s hospitals, medical centers, clinics, first responder centers, communication towers, water pumping stations, water treatment plants, and eveything crucial for the emergency response.  This is not optional.  To get an operating license of any kind you have to show that your establishment can operate off grid for at least several days.  This includes government buildings: every single government building needs to have PV power backup.

Second, all major tourist infrastructure, that means ALL the major hotels, MUST have independent PV systems installed capable of stand alone operation when the grid goes down.  This is obligatory: non negotiable before construction is authorized.

What this distributed power strategy gives you is almost indestructible energy resilience in the urban environment and on the coastal areas where you have tourist infrastructure.  It means that wherever you live in a large town, somewhere down the street or not too far away is a place that has electricity. And if the government has enacted legislation that covers these expenses in the aftermath of a disaster, you can charge your cellphone for free and get free telephone service for at least a week post-disaster so that families can connect—a huge source of stress, misery, and anxiety for families after a catastrophe like hurricane Maria.

Third is communications.  You phone is charged up–but you don’t have a signal.  The lights are on but there’s no-one home. Cell phone towers must be constructed to survive a Cat5 storm and be backed up by a stand-alone PV system.  Communications are absolutely essential.  To call for help you need four things: a working mobile phone, electricity to charge it, a wireless network that’s working, and credit on the phone.  Government has to take care of the last one. There needs to be a deal with the service providers that mobile phones get free credit for at least a few days after the storm has passed.

So where’s the grid?  This grid is modular.  There is no central grid.  There are a series of regional grids. Each linked  to a set of renewable MW-scale power centres—either wind (offshore/onshore depending on the resource)—or photovoltaic.  Rural areas and towns farther away are serviced by minigrids: local distribution systems that are not linked to the main transmission network.

This is not new technology.  It’s out there now.  It’s off the shelf. What’s lacking is the knowledge of its existence, the intelligence to see that things have changed, and the courage to insist that a new approach must be found.

Why do some houses get ripped apart and others look just fine?

Wesley village in Dominica after the passage of hurricane Maria

This photo is from Wesley village in Dominica after the passage of Maria.  But you frequently see these contrasting images.  In the foreground is a house ripped to shreds; in the background is a house apparently untouched by the Cat5 hurricane. Some things seem clear: the house that got blown apart was built with wood, and although the roof seems to have survived intact, it looks like the house just collapsed under it.

The house behind is probably built with cement blocks and the roof looks flat—so presumably made of reinforced concrete. It’s no mystery why a concrete structure withstood the storm.  So now the question is :  why can’t everyone on Dominica live in a concrete house?

We all know the answer.  It’s a lot more expensive.  But then, don’t tell me that people can’t survive a Cat5 hurricane.  They can.  Concrete structure don’t fall down (except in earthquakes—that’s a different issue).  It’s just that poor people can’t afford them.

But isn’t that what governents are for?   No-one on the Caribbean islands should be living in a wooden house with a tin roof.  It’s a death trap.

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