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Puerto Rico pioneers a revolutionary approach, leveraging home batteries to stabilize and enhance its power grid.

Puerto Rico has embarked on a pioneering journey by integrating residents' home batteries with rooftop solar panels into its power grid, marking a significant stride towards establishing one of the largest virtual power plants globally. This innovative yearlong pilot, spearheaded by Luma Energy, aims to harness power from up to 6,500 households to bolster the grid during energy shortages. The initiative is a key part of Puerto Rico's broader strategy to revitalize its aging infrastructure and pivot towards renewable energy sources.

The success of this pilot could pave the way for a more extensive virtual power plant, potentially rendering fossil fuel-dependent peaker plants obsolete. According to Ben Hertz-Shargel, a grid expert at Wood Mackenzie, expanding this program to include all home batteries on the island would surpass any similar project in North America in terms of scale.

Virtual power plants (VPPs) are an aggregation of distributed energy resources, such as home batteries, electric water heaters, or heat pumps, that collectively enhance grid stability and efficiency. These systems not only manage energy demand by regulating devices like smart thermostats during peak times but can also supply energy to the grid, for instance, by drawing power from home or electric vehicle batteries. The Department of Energy champions VPPs as a solution to the expected surge in energy demand, projecting that tripling the nation's VPP capacity by 2030 could cater to 10 to 20 percent of peak demand. This expansion could potentially save the U.S. around $10 billion annually by mitigating the need for new infrastructure and reliance on peaker plants.

Puerto Rico is uniquely positioned to adopt a residential-storage VPP due to the prevalence of rooftop solar installations equipped with batteries, a trend accelerated by the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The island's commitment to energy resiliency is evident from the rapid increase in rooftop solar adoption and energy storage demand post-Maria. Javier Rúa-Jovet from the Puerto Rico Solar and Energy Storage Association highlighted that batteries have become an integral part of solar systems in Puerto Rico, driven primarily by the need for resilience.

If the program is successful, it could lead to a much larger virtual power plant with the potential to make peaker plants, which run only when demand spikes, unnecessary. “It could be really significant,” said Ben Hertz-Shargel, a grid expert at the research firm Wood Mackenzie, adding that if it were expanded to include all home batteries on the island, it would be larger than any residential-storage virtual power plant in North America. 

Currently, over 100,000 households in Puerto Rico have installed rooftop solar systems, and the island is adding around 4,000 new systems every month. These installations already contribute approximately 600 megawatts to the power needs, exceeding the output of the largest coal-powered peaker plant in the region. By utilizing the batteries connected to these solar panels, Puerto Rico could substantially amplify its clean energy capacity.

According to Grist, the pilot program aims to enroll 6,500 households, potentially providing about 26 megawatts of power. As of late December, nearly 2,000 households had joined, contributing 12.4 MW of capacity. The VPP has been activated several times, with its usage expected to increase during the hotter summer months. The program's design allows participants to control the amount of power reserved in their batteries, offering flexibility and addressing concerns related to energy sharing and trust issues with Luma Energy and its predecessor.

Participants also stand to gain financially. Luma Energy compensates solar providers at $1.25 per kilowatt-hour, with revenue shared with customers. Some companies like Sonnen and Sunrun offer attractive rates and bonuses to participants, making it a financially viable option. For instance, Hector Ríos, a participant from Cabo Rojo, shared his experience with the program, highlighting the financial incentives and the ability to contribute to a groundbreaking initiative.

Puerto Rico's innovative approach in harnessing the potential of home batteries for grid stability not only fosters energy independence but also epitomizes a remarkable step in the island's journey towards a sustainable and resilient energy future. As the world watches, Puerto Rico's endeavor could serve as a blueprint for a comprehensive energy transition, driven by community engagement, technological innovation, and a commitment to environmental stewardship.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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