Part 1.

By Lotus Shaheen

In the face of tormenting natural disasters, man has no power other than mitigating and adapt. Over the last twenty years, UN records show that the number of human lives lost to natural disasters has stagnated to a horrific 1.3 million killed with 151 percent increase in climate-related causes. Whether climate change is to blame or not, the urgent need to provide the victims of these crises with the required aid is a rising priority. Therefore we think floating solar power plants can help relieve natural crises.

Inland water accumulation in Ponce, Puerto Rico lasting for weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, September 30, 2019 (resource), [i]

On the morning of September 20, 2017, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has witnessed one of the most intense hurricane disasters in the region. With ferocious wind speeds up to 250 kilometers per hour, Hurricane Maria cut right across the island. Massive damages to the infrastructure, telecommunication networks, and power blackouts were only the material consequences.

The absence of electricity “killed” more than 4000 people

Official reports counted 64 death cases. However, a later study highly questioned this figure. According to the survey results published in the New England Journal of Medicine, mortality rates increased by an excess of 4645 death cases from September 20 to December 31, 2017[ii]. One-third of the stated count in the study has been attributed to delayed or interrupted health care with the absence of electricity-powered respiratory equipment as the second most frequent medical problem.

Hurricane Maria making landfall near Yabucoa in the eastern region of Puerto Rico, September 20, 2017 (resource), [iii]

Power outage resulting from the hurricane broke records as the longest in US history. Not until eleven months later did Puerto Rican authorities announce the full recovery of the heavily oil-and-gas-dependent electricity grid. Yet, the imminent needs of crisis recovery have driven some citizens to take the early initiative of repairing power lines themselves[iv]. Even so, access to electricity has been hindered to an average of 84 days in most households; especially in remote non-urban areasii. Satellite observations of night lights by NASA scientists ascertained the higher vulnerability to longer power outages in small or remote communities – for instance in the western regions of Puerto Rico. Overall, the disaster outcomes, blackout included, cost the Puerto Rican economy a minimum of 90 billion USD; equivalent to a decrease in gross national product by 15 percent [v]

Satellite images of night lights detecting human activity across Puerto Rico, as a measure of power recovery.
Time spans: September 20 – Movember 20, 2017 (left); January 21 March 20, 2018 (Right).
(NASA Earth Observatory)

Recommended Video: NASA’s Black Marble Maps Puerto Rico’s Energy Use After Hurricane Maria https://youtu.be/vZkwASBe2zo

In a report by the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), extreme weather incidents between 1998 and 2017 have accounted for a rise in fatal causalities to 1.3 million deaths and caused 4.4 billion cases of injuries or severe living conditions[vi]. Furthermore, the figures not only reflected an increase in event occurrence but indicated two influential factors to human losses; vulnerability and exposure. Simply put, with low levels of preparedness in terms of public awareness and strategic risk management, a heat wave breaking out across Europe can be fatally as inevitable as a cyclone hitting Myanmar.

Yearly disaster fatalities according to the two major disaster catefories; climate-related and geophysical (source)

Also, according to the UNISDR report, monetizing natural disaster damages is a challenge. Involving the human factor is only part of the difficulty, as in most cases economic data is lacking altogether. This is due to the fact that direct costs are mostly reported by high-income groups for high-value assets. Nevertheless, the World Bank has estimated the real impact of natural disasters on the global economy to a staggering 520 billion USD per year over the past two decades. In the case of Puerto Rico, in order to repair the almost collapsed power grid, 3.8 billion USD have been invested over the course of nine months. Yet doubts have fast risen following the repair concerning the grid’s fragility and whether it can stand the next storm season[vii].

Hence, strategic measures were taken by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, distributing around 600 diesel generators in key sites such as hospitals and water pumping stations[viii]. On the other hand, aspiring discussions to reform the Puerto Rican power infrastructure did not exclude grid upgrades, micro-gridding and privatization of assets. Given the diverse political and social hindrances of the proposed solutions, the deployment of renewable energy sources stands out as the most feasible of all alternatives. An opportunity detected by the energy giant, Tesla. After Hurricane Maria, Tesla’s 662 newly installed solar-battery systems (a.k.a. ‘Powerwalls’ and ‘Powerpacks’) have alleviated another blackout in April 2018, prior to the grid’s full recovery[ix].

A Tesla installation at the San Juan Children’s Hospital set up post Hurricane Maria (source: Alvin Baez/Reuters)


In order to reduce the vulnerability towards natural disasters, floating solar PV can provide considerable practicality during the efforts of crisis relief. Making use of accumulated flooding water and providing power access regardless of geographical or grid considerations, floating PV can help individuals survive long durations of blackouts and provide rescue teams with the necessary electricity demand. Although long-term operation requires stable water bodies, stackable easy to store and install units can be regarded as emergency assets in regions prone to flooding. Thus, efficient technology deployment of floating PV can mitigate the rippling implications of long waits for medical aid or life-dependent energy need.

[i] VOA news. Trump Blasts Mayor of Hurricane-Devastated San Juan, Puerto Rico (original photo caption: Standing water in Ponce, Puerto Rico, poses health risks for its residents more than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated the island). By Peter Heinlein, published online: September 30, 2017. URL: https://www.voanews.com/a/us-official-to-puerto-rico-we-are-here-to-help/4050833.html

[ii] Nishante, K. et al. Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. N Engl J Med 2018; 379:162-170.
DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa1803972

[iii] NASA earth observatory. Images. Hurricane Maria Lashes Puerto Rico. URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/91004/hurricane-maria-lashes-puerto-rico

[iv] The Conversation. Puerto Rico has not recovered from Hurricane Maria. By Lauren Lluveras, published online: September 18, 2018. URL: https://theconversation.com/puerto-rico-has-not-recovered-from-hurricane-maria-103288

[v] NASA earth observatory. Images. Night Lights Show Slow Recovery from Maria. URL: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/144371/night-lights-show-slow-recovery-from-maria

[vi] UNISDR. Economic Losses, Poverty & Disasters 1998 – 2017. URL: https://www.unisdr.org/files/61119_credeconomiclosses.pdf

[vii] Scientific American. Energy. As Electricity Returns to Puerto Rico, Its People Want More Power. By Larry Greenemeier and Louis Dzierzak, published online: July 10, 2018. URL: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/as-electricity-returns-to-puerto-rico-its-people-want-more-power/

[viii] WTOP. Puerto Rico grid ‘teetering’ despite $3.8 billion repair job. By Associated Press, published online: May 31, 2018. URL: https://wtop.com/latin-america/2018/05/puerto-rico-grid-teetering-despite-3-8-billion-repair-job/slide/1/

[ix] Electrek. Tesla Powerwalls and Powerpacks keep the lights on at 662 locations in Puerto Rico during island-wide blackout, says Elon Musk. By Fred Lambert, published online: April 18, 2018. URL: https://electrek.co/2018/04/18/tesla-powerwall-powerpack-puerto-rico-blackout-elon-musk/

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