It has been almost six weeks since Hurricane Maria slammed into islands in the Caribbean Sea.
Six weeks living without electricity for the many of millions of Americans who live on the United States territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. No lights, no cellphones, no clean drinking water. The rebuilding process is slow and painful.
The widespread devastation has been covered on television, in newspapers and through social media, but PJM’s Jonathon Monken doesn’t have to rely on TV – he is dealing firsthand with the monumental task of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid.
Monken, senior director – System Resilience and Strategic Coordination, recently returned from a month-long stint at the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., as part of the U.S. Army Reserve.
Monken, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a major in the Reserve, is part of a unit tasked with communications and cybersecurity support to FEMA for disasters. When the power grids on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were destroyed by Hurricane Maria, FEMA quickly stood up a Power Restoration Crisis Action Planning, or CAP, team, and Major Monken was called in to support the effort.
Maria was the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 85 years, coming ashore with sustained winds of 155 mph and gusts of up to 180 mph. It knocked out power to the entire island and damaged more than 70 percent of the transmission system and 85 percent of the distribution system. Trees were uprooted, homes were destroyed, and there was widespread flooding.
Monken’s Reserve unit was sent to FEMA as soon as the catastrophe became Level One – all hands on deck. “We provide surge support to FEMA for emergency support function two (which is cybersecurity and communications),” said Monken.
With his experience at PJM, Monken joined the CAP team to lead the work on developing the communications strategy to support power restoration. He spent most of his time working on restoration plans for Puerto Rico.
The good news is much of the island’s generating capacity is intact.
“The generation mix relies heavily on natural gas and oil, which in part is responsible for the high energy prices, since much of the fuel is imported,” he said. “There is a fair amount of hydro on the island, but once Puerto Rico had its economic crisis, much of that fell into disrepair. Over recent years, there has been some solar installed, and that survived the hurricane as well.”
As far as rebuilding the grid itself, it’s a different story. The damage to the transmission system is extensive.
Puerto Rico’s transmission system consists of three 230-kV loops. After the storm, on one loop alone, there were 22 consecutive towers knocked out. Monken said that is one reason the timeline for restoration is so long. When crews restore the critical loop that serves San Juan and environs, it will serve 40 percent of the population.
Monken said that the New York Power Authority sent drones to help assess damage, given the challenges traversing roads to the interior of the island. That helps address the transportation limitations.
“The drones can show how bad the road debris is,” he said. “They are valuable to get a sense of how bad it is overall.”
When the grid is not operational, there is no power for telecommunications or cellphone towers.
According to a website from the Puerto Rican government, as of Oct. 30, fewer than 28 percent of people have power and 33 percent do not have access to telecommunications services.
What has made step-by-step restoration problematic, however, is that once power has been restored somewhere, survivors scramble to piggyback to the power source. This results in a voltage collapse from too much load. Right now, operators are unable to balance the load.
“It is the first time the U.S. has experienced a true black sky impact,” said Monken. “You realize how much we rely on fiber optics and cellular communications to operate the grid,” said Monken. “You pull one leg out of the stool for long enough and everything collapses.
“You also realize how much interconnection there is with the water situation. Backup generators can only do so much; when it comes to high-energy-demand infrastructure like water treatment, they can’t afford to lose grid power for very long before they begin to experience major problems.”
What will it take to rebuild? Monken pointed out that one of the impediments is contending with the Stafford Act.
The act is designed to bring an orderly and systemic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to aid citizens. It states that publicly owned infrastructure must be replaced with infrastructure of a similar grade. With Puerto Rico’s infrastructure already in some level of disrepair prior to the hurricane, it makes it a challenge to rebuild a more resilient system.
“It’s obviously problematic,” said Monken. “Having a repeat [of the destruction] is a direction nobody wants to take. There is some space to play within the [Stafford] Act, because the grid was inefficient before the destruction. There is certainly precedent on the mainland to be able to implement smart grid updates. A smart rebuild would provide a more resilient grid, potentially at a relative cost parity.”
Monken said the restorations in Texas and Florida from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (both in 2017) went well for several reasons. The infrastructure investments after Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992 were invaluable to limiting damage (from Irma), and a mutual assistance effort reduced the time for restoration of 95 percent of customers from 18 days in Andrew to 10 days in Irma.
“The ability to get the crews there to do a significant amount of restoration was a major advantage, and it demonstrates the logistical challenges of supporting the islands.
“With Puerto Rico, we hit that tipping point where power was out long enough that traditional backups couldn’t keep up, and interdependent infrastructure outages, such as communications, badly hindered efforts to restore.”
Another complication is the Utility Mutual Assistance pact, the geographic regional assistance agreement for natural disasters. Puerto Rico’s mutual assistance area is New England, and the Virgin Islands’ is the western power authority. The pact also covers reimbursement for the aid provided.
“We recognize that the logistics of getting from California to the Virgin Islands are really hard. Getting trucks from Vermont to Puerto Rico … It’s problematic. It can’t be accomplished without government support.”
What does Monken think are the lessons for the grid on the continental United States?
“It’s the purest version of a black start that we’ve ever seen in the United States,” said Monken. He said more resilience and redundancy will have to be built into the system in Puerto Rico, better backup systems. “No cell towers are designed to handle 180 mile-per-hour winds.”
Monken believes that Puerto Rico will need a great deal of mutual aid for restoration.
Monken added that reimbursement needs to be codified with disaster recovery funds guaranteed for those purposes, so Puerto Rico’s creditors cannot try to seize the money meant for the mutual assistance workers.
“We have to figure out better capability to provide transport. You’re not going to drive 3,000 miles to get on a barge. What is the ‘go-to’ methodology? What’s second?”
Monken shared personal stories as well. He worked with Teo Diaz of Human Resources to reach his mother-in-law, who lives in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico. Diaz’s family had not heard from her since the storm. Monken worked with the Red Cross and assured Diaz that his mother-in-law was safe.
Monken also praised coworkers. When the CAP team needed cost estimates, Chantal Hendrzak, executive director – Market Evolution, and Emanuel Bernabeu, manager – Applied Solutions, reached back to speak with Pepco and quickly get back to the team with those estimates based on work they did following Superstorm Sandy and current microgrid projects.
“It was awesome to see how quickly people stepped up,” said Monken.