More than a month after hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, 79% of the island is still without electricity. Experts are calling for microgrids to help prevent this humane crisis in the future, and Tesla is already building a solar panel and battery combination to get reliable power to a children’s hospital.

What are microgrids? And what does Alaska have to teach the world about them?

Microgrids are small-scale power grids that can connect to a larger interconnected grid or operate independently.  With no connecting overhead cables vulnerable to heavy winds or flying debris, and the ability to be “islanded” from the main grid, microgrids are far more resilient than centralized power grids during severe weather events.  They can also be powered by multiple generation sources, which doubly ensures highly reliable power and thus more protection from disaster.

This is especially important for Alaska, which has more than 70 microgrid projects in the many rural, isolated communities off the road system.  These communities already benefit from the aforementioned resilience to disasters that microgrids in their communities provide.  They are now gaining even more disaster resilience as more communities incorporate renewable energy into their microgrids. Many are lowering their energy costs, since it is extremely expensive to constantly ship in fuel to run the generators for electricity production. Due to the variety and number of microgrids in the state, Alaska has more knowledge in the field than most states or even nations. Organizations within the state, like Alaska Center for Energy and Power, Cold Climate Housing Research Center, and REAP are invited to conferences and meetings to share the challenges and best practices already learned. Although vastly different climates, there are certainly parallels that can be drawn between the remote areas of the Alaskan bush and Caribbean islands.

In the midst of recovery efforts for the several hurricanes that have hit the Southern U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean, grid vulnerability is apparent.  The devastating hurricanes in the Gulf Coast in the past month have spurred a new push for installing microgrids that use renewable energy, which further increases disaster resistance because it can be produced locally.  Microgrids work well with renewable energy because a microgrid can be based around several independent renewable energy installations with a fossil-fuel power installation for back up.  Many areas impacted by the recent storms have the natural resources to take advantage of such as solar and wind. Puerto Rico even has a wind farm that was undamaged by the storm but is waiting for a small amount of electricity from the grid to be restarted. Most of the areas rely on high cost fossil fuels that are shipped or flown in, just as Alaskan communities do. These regions could be saving significantly and reducing the environmental costs with renewable-based microgrids.

Tom Rogers, a renewable energy expert at Coventry University in Britain, interviewed for an article for the Washington Post, had conversations with several utility companies affected, and all have stated a preference to rebuild with renewable energy without the disaster-sensitive overhead cables.

According to Chris Burgess at the Islands Energy Program at Rocky Mountain Institute “For the most part, these island grids were completely devastated, and it will be four to six months before most of them can power their islands completely again.”

We hope that Puerto Rico and other areas affected by the recent hurricanes can rebuild quickly and effectively, learning lessons from Alaska on the benefits of microgrids.  Find out more on how to help the recovery effort in Puerto Rico here.