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For more than three months in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, large swaths of Puerto Rico were left without power. As the territory worked to restore its central power grid, thousands of workers from the U.S. government and private sector landed in Puerto Rico to lend expertise and manpower to a growing humanitarian crisis. Louis Berger, a global professional services corporation with headquarters in Morristown, N.J., sent more than 900 staff and contractors to Puerto Rico; the company’s established track record of disaster relief has included rebuilding efforts following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

Tom Lewis, U.S. division president at Louis Berger, and William Villafañe,
Puerto Rico’s government chief of staff representing
Governor Ricardo Rosselló, discuss the project.

Following two devastating hurricanes, the scale of the destruction throughout Puerto Rico was massive, demanding unprecedented resources and labor to restore power to an island of 3.4 million people. But while the Puerto Rican recovery effort demanded immediate action to deliver relief, it also presented the possibility of developing a more reliable and efficient power supply network through the rebuilding process.

Focusing on “building back better,” Louis Berger identified an opportunity to provide temporary power to concentrated areas through the use of distributed microgrids. Specifically, Louis Berger worked with the government of Puerto Rico and three partners — Westgen, AEG, and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University — to restore power to the community of La Perla de Gran Pecio in the municipality of Bayamón.

As part of Louis Berger’s Solutions for a Better World commitment, the La Perla de Gran Precio’s project is a pro bono demonstration to provide solar-hybrid and microgrid solutions to power the buildings of the La Perla de Gran Pecio shelter for women as well as its associated Hogar El Pequeño Joshua shelter for children in the rural mountain village of Barrio Nuevo.

Distributed microgrids: Cleaner and more resilient

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has installed or is in the process of installing microgrids at several locations.

While the devastation to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria was widespread, the most consequential damage was done to the island’s central power grid. Destruction on this scale, with more than half of the territory’s energy customers left without power even months after the hurricane, created a situation in which long-term rebuilding efforts needed to be considered alongside immediate disaster relief efforts.

The vulnerability of a central power grid in a region prone to hurricanes was made clear by the impact of Hurricane Maria; an updated version of Puerto Rico’s previously existing power grid would present the same vulnerabilities. However, innovations in engineering and technology offer an alternative solution in rebuilding the island’s energy infrastructure. Through a combination of microgrids, renewable energy sources, and solar-hybrid generators, Louis Berger is demonstrating the potential for a cleaner and more resilient system for Puerto Rico’s future.

Distributed microgrids reduce the infrastructure required to deliver power from a central grid to users spread over a large area, eliminating unnecessary power lines and reducing the frequency of equipment failures. In addition to providing more reliable power with less vulnerability, the distributed microgrid system can also be expanded rapidly, allowing governments and energy companies to respond quickly to shifts in demand by implementing new energy sources. Distributed microgrid systems also produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than a central power grid, delivering an immediate and tangible environmental benefit.

At the launch of the La Perla de Gran Pecio project on Jan. 26, Tom Lewis, Louis Berger U.S. division president, pointed out the potential benefit of enhancing Puerto Rico’s existing power infrastructure with distributed microgrids. “These more modern and clean technologies are not a complete replacement for the central power grid of Puerto Rico, but they are the future of distributed power and can absolutely allow the central power grid of the future to be smaller, less costly, and more efficient,” Lewis said.

La Perla de Gran Pecio Project

Identifying the critical energy needs of the La Perla de Gran Pecio foundation, Louis Berger developed a pro bono microgrid project to be completed in two phases. The first phase, launched on Jan. 26, involved connecting two different types of solar-hybrid generators to two La Perla de Gran Pecio buildings. Power was temporarily restored using mobile generators from AEG and WestGen SolarRover; the compact devices are able to provide consistent power that matches the output of a 24kVA gas or diesel generator.

The second phase of the project will see the microgrid expand to provide reliable power to each of the compound’s buildings, with the potential for further expansion and integration of existing diesel generators. The solar-hybrid generators are capable of operating both independently of, and in conjunction with, the central power grid and other energy sources, delivering enhanced power security and resilience against long-term power outages like those caused by natural disasters.

Louis Berger and its project partners plan to demonstrate the viability of a solar-hybrid community microgrid by combining solar and fossil fuel-based energy to power several of Barrio Nuevo’s facilities. Microgrid development could allow the area more flexibility in incorporating renewable resources while lowering vulnerability to fluctuations in fuel prices. And if implemented more broadly, microgrids could lead to a more efficient energy infrastructure while reducing the potential for widespread outages like those that occurred post-Maria.

Forward-thinking responsibility

The SolaRover serves Hogar El Pequeño Joshua, a shelter for children.

With operations on every habitable continent, Louis Berger is one of the world’s largest engineering and infrastructure companies. Leveraging their experience and resources, Louis Berger has developed a significant Corporate Social Responsibility program, which is committed to serving and giving back to communities where its employees and clients live and work.

In the short term, Louis Berger’s demonstration project has provided an immediate improvement in quality of life for some of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable residents. “I was so happy to hear that when we connected the unit… and the lights went on in the children’s center this week, the children could be heard inside shouting with joy and excitement,” Lewis said. As the company is able to integrate more solar-hybrid mobile generators, the Barrio Nuevo community can expect to see a noticeable improvement in their daily life.

For the long-term reconstruction of Puerto Rico’s power grid, the technologies deployed in the La Perla de Gran Pecio project represent a turning point for stable, renewable energy. While Puerto Ricans have remained resilient in the face of natural disasters, an updated and innovative power system will allow them to live more efficiently and stand stronger against the threat of hurricanes.

Beyond Puerto Rico and the Hurricane Maria disaster response, there remain areas throughout the world that could suffer similar destruction to an outdated power network. By converting to a distributed system and reducing the potential impact of a natural disaster, governments and energy companies can protect their citizens and customers with a more resilient, cost-efficient, and environmentally friendly solution.


Information provided by Louis Berger (www.louisberger.com).   

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