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Floating PV for Fast and Efficient Crisis Relief

By Lotus Shaheen

In the face of tormenting natural disasters, man has no power other than mitigate 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, dated September 30, 2017. Source: VOA

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 kilometres per hour, Hurricane Maria cut right across the island. Massive damages to the infrastructure, telecommunication networks and power blackouts were only the material consequences. 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 [1]. 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 a landfall near Yabucoa in the eastern region of Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 at 6:15 am local time. Source: NASA earth observatory

Recommended Video: NASA’s Black Marble Maps Puerto Rico’s Energy Use After Hurricane Maria

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 (source). 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 categories; 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 (source).

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 (source). 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 (source).

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.

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

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