When Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico was already in a bad spot. The island was in a deep recession, its state-run utility was basically broke, and for years, the power grid hadn’t been updated.
Efraín O’Neill is looking for something different.
“If we rebuild exactly what we had before, we are still in the same place as we were before Maria,” said O'Neill, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.
More than five months after Hurricane Maria, hundreds of thousands of electric customers in Puerto Rico still remain without power. And it's the infrastructure that’s the problem.
For years, O’Neill said Puerto Rico depended on centralized power. Big fossil-fuel power plants networked through fragile grid of transmission towers and power lines.
A delicate balance that was shattered by Maria.
“We cannot continue depending on the centralized model, because it has shown its vulnerabilities. In my perspective, we should be paying more attention to the local resources that we have,” O’Neill said. “In terms of energy … the best resource we have, that has commercially available technology, is the Sun.”
As federal aid makes its way to the island, O’Neill said he hopes officials will pay more attention to things like rooftop solar. Creating local jobs, stopping emigration to the mainland, and building a more resilient grid.
“It’s in the interest of all involved to reconstruct a more resilient Puerto Rico,” O’Neill said. “To give Puerto Rico an opportunity to build local socio-economic initiatives that are able to sustain our economy and stop the emigration - the migration of Puerto Ricans - to the mainland.”
O'Neill will speak about Puerto Rico’s power grid at UConn this Wednesday.