Puerto Rico Eyed As Electricity Grid Innovation Testing Ground

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By Rebecca Kern

Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the nominee to head the Energy Department’s electricity office both see potential for U.S. national lab-engineered electricity innovations to rebuild Puerto Rico’s hurricane-shattered grid.

The U.S. territory could be a testing ground for new electricity-delivery technologies from the national laboratories, Energy nominee Bruce Walker told Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members Sept. 26. Perry, in a separate appearance, also talked of the possibilities of lab innovations involving nuclear power.

Hurricane Maria knocked out Puerto Rico’s entire electric grid, leaving its 3.4 million residents without power. Energy Committee members asked Walker what could be done to improve the U.S. territory’s resilience against future storms.

Walker, nominated to be the department’s assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, said he sees a “tremendous opportunity” to use Puerto Rico to deploy projects developed at Energy’s national laboratories “to introduce new concepts and perhaps new architectural construction.”

He talked about the potential for a more “collapsible” electric grid system in Puerto Rico that can come down in a hurricane with high winds—but be restored quickly.

“I think that, plus with new innovation with new technologies, will allow for the redevelopment and reconstruction of the actual overall system in Puerto Rico,” he said.

Potential For Small Modular Reactors

Perry also spoke about the potential of deploying national lab innovations in Puerto Rico during a panel discussion at a Sept. 26 National Clean Energy Week event in Washington, D.C.

“Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 [military cargo] aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up and plug it in?” he asked.

“That’s the type of innovation that’s going on at our national labs. Hopefully, we can expedite that,” he said.

Small modular nuclear reactor technologies are smaller-scale—between 50 megawatts and 600 megawatts—and touted by their proponents as safer than conventional reactors. However, they currently aren’t expected to be on the U.S. market until at least the mid-2020s, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewing NuScale Power LLC’s application for its technology.

Grid ‘Assistance Opportunities’ Possible

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), chairman of Energy and Natural Resources’ Energy Subcommittee, said at the hearing, “I think there are some ways that we could work with the Department of Energy, perhaps dealing with mutual assistance opportunities in Puerto Rico as we rebuild the grid.”

If confirmed, Walker would head the Energy Department office working to ensure the U.S. energy delivery system is secure, resilient and reliable and helps develop new technologies to improve electricity infrastructure.

Walker has worked in the electric utility sector for more than 25 years and is the founder of Modern Energy Insights, Inc., a firm that assesses electric grid security. Previously, Walker worked with National Grid USA, an investor-owned energy company operating in the northeastern U.S., and in the United Kingdom, and Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, Inc.

Murkowski Seeks to Advance Nominees

Walker and Steven Winberg, who was nominated to be the department’s assistant secretary of fossil energy, faced little opposition at their confirmation hearing. Winberg, currently a program manager at Battelle Memorial Institute, has worked in the private fossil energy sector and has developed two patents on innovations that reduce emissions from coal-fueled boilers.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the committee, said at the start of the hearing she intends to move the nominations to the full Senate “as soon as possible.”

Murkowski also said she will be working with Senate leadership to secure floor votes for remaining Energy agency nominees “this week and for as long as it takes.”

Nine nominees have been favorably reported out of Murkowski’s committee—three for the Energy Department, four for the Interior Department, and two for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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