Exploring Solar Energy Innovation Ecosystems

A few years ago, several of us were privileged to participate in an Innovation Lab sponsored by the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy that highlighted the critical importance of energy innovation ecosystems. Based on that idea, we’ve been working in Puerto Rico over the past few years to understand how we can leverage diverse facets of the solar energy innovation ecosystem to bring solar energy to low-income communities there. We’ve now published our first report on that topic: The Evolving Solar Energy Innovation Ecosystem in Puerto Rico.

Energy Innovation System – Innovation Lab, Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy – innovation ecosystems map all of the dynamic participants involved in bringing new ideas and technologies into being, in this case in the energy sector.

Some of the key findings from the report include:

  • In the wake of Hurricane María and the resulting long-duration energy outages suffered by many communities, there is now a very high level of interest in solar energy among policymakers, businesses, and communities across Puerto Rico. To put it succinctly, solar energy has captured the imagination of the people of Puerto Rico.
  • The societal enthusiasm for solar energy in Puerto Rico is driven by two primary considerations. The most widely cited reason for adopting solar energy is, across incomes and stakeholder types, to create a more resilient and secure future energy supply that can supplement grid-based electricity during and after future disasters. There is widespread sentiment that the Puerto Rico electricity grid is extremely vulnerable to environmental disruption and technological failures. This leads to a particular emphasis on systems capable of functioning as backup power supplies during grid outages and, therefore, to supplementing solar with batteries. Many respondents to our interviews have also expressed the idea that Puerto Rico should rely on its locally available solar resources to replace carbon-based energy imports in the future.
  • Despite the high social enthusiasm for solar energy in Puerto Rico, the pace of solar installations in Puerto Rico has not kept paceSolar markets and policy are active in Puerto Rico, but they are not translating into rapid adoption of solar energy. Solar energy remains expensive for many households. Federal assistance funds have been slow to arrive, restricting opportunities for investing in more resilient energy systems.
  • The social sensitivity of Puerto Rican households to disruptions in energy supply remains very high. We continue to encounter new communities expressing an interest in pursuing community-oriented solar solutions in a rooftop level.
  • Distributed rooftop solar energy offers an enormous technical potential to provide for the electricity needs of Puerto Rican communities, including low-income communities. Data analyzed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that distributed rooftop solar energy has the potential to more than meet the needs of low-income communities in Puerto Rico. In each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, the total technical potential for rooftop solar energy generation on low-income residential buildings exceeds the electricity consumption of low-income households by at least a factor of two. A parallel analysis indicates that 50% of Puerto Rican households would have 50% or more of their electricity needs met by a 2 kW solar system, a fact which could have made a big difference to the last 200,000 households reconnected to the grid after Hurricane María, who suffered over 150 days without power and were responsible for 1/3 of the total customer hours lost during the blackout. 

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