Writings and observations

Rebuilding the right way

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The hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico, leaving most of the island with wreckage all over and electricity and running water in too few places, is an unqualified catastrophe.

That still doesn’t mean something useful can’t come from it.

One of the questions sure to arise there, as happened in New Orleans after the Katrina storm (and more recently in Houston and elsewhere) is: Why rebuild? The recent storm was surely not the last. Why reconstruct what will surely be knocked down sometime to come?

Somehow or another, of course, we have to rebuild. In the case of Puerto Rico, for example, what’s the alternative: To tell three and a half million people to go,leave, for somewhere, and leave home behind? There have to be some better answers.

And there probably are. One of them comes courtesy of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who is suggesting (among other things) using renewable energy technology to work around the hazards of tropical storms.

The framework he outlines is this: “America’s energy grid is in need of an upgrade. These bills will promote a more flexible electricity grid that can respond to power disruptions from natural disasters and ensure reliable, low-cost electricity for consumers now and in the future. They will lower costs for energy storage technologies that make renewable energy more reliable and cost-effective, boost funding for cutting-edge research and reward state and private sector innovations.”

To that end he suggested a batch of bills, backed by a number of utility industry organizations. One of them would “create competitive, cost-share grant programs for new small-scale, grid-connected projects such as rooftop solar panels, hot water heaters, electric vehicles and modernized utility pricing technologies.”

Another would “provide funding to the Department of Energy to research and develop ways to lower the cost of energy storage technologies, which make it possible for renewable energy to be used on a more reliable and affordable basis.” And a third would help shift job training toward renewable energy methods.

The big advantage of renewables, in a storm context, is that many of those resources can be protected in case of disasters, and a loss in one places doesn’t necessarily mean a mass outage. Solar is a great example; an island reliant mainly on solar energy would see significant damage, but not nearly enough to bring the whole area to a standstill.

And if you used that kind of technology to help rebuild Puerto Rico, you could take the lessons learned (and the economies of scale developed) onto the mainland, with back advantages accruing back in the States. It would truly be an investment that could logically pay off in a big way.

In the current Congress, the proposal may not go far. But if the idea gets some attention, it could wind up doing a lot of good down the road. Not that Puerto Rico couldn’t benefit from it … right now.

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