Next Big Idea In Electricity: Subsea Cable From The Mainland To Puerto Rico

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It is big. A big idea. Some of the world’s biggest energy and engineering companies are interested in it, as is the Department of Energy.

The big thinking is to provide electricity by subsea cable to storm-vulnerable Puerto Rico. At 1,500-miles, it would be the longest U.S. cable of its type, but about a third shorter than a cable now planned between Morocco and Britain.

The driving force behind this big thinking is Adam Rousselle, an entrepreneur with a substantial portfolio of successes in the utility and forestry industries.

In an interview in Washington, Rousselle told me that his plan is to lay double 2.1-gigawatt cables from the East Coast to Puerto Rico.

The cost for a single cable has been estimated at $6 billion. But in order to ensure the island’s electricity supply, a second cable should be installed at the same time as the first, increasing the cost to an estimated $8.5 to $9 billion, he said.

Bechtel, Siemens, NKT Interested

Major players involved in discussions are Bechtel, for program management, architecture and engineering; NKT, for cable supply; and Siemens, for substations and power electronics.

The project would be managed by Alternative Transmission, Inc., Rousselle’s existing company. Dentons, the global law firm, acting for Rouselle, has petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to have the company declared a “transmitting utility.”

Rousselle has named the planned transmission of power to Puerto Rico Project Equity. He sees it as a long-term solution to the island’s chronic power problems caused by successive hurricanes. He also believes that the cost of power on the island would be halved when the first cable goes into operation.

Having reliable, cheap power would be, perhaps, a new day for Puerto Rico. At present, Puerto Ricans pay some of the highest rates for power — when they can get it — in the United States. With a cable, especially if it is accompanied by a redundant twin, power generation problems would be over for a century, Rousselle said.

However, reliable power by subsea cable wouldn’t solve the distribution problem on the island. Project Equity would stop at the two substations. It will construct near the island’s flimsy grid. The project’s cables would originate in Pennsylvania and South Carolina and would be fed by several utilities.

Many energy activists would like Puerto Rico to become a model of the future with new generation coming from solar and wind.

Those backing Project Equity aver. They say renewables would continue the island’s power vulnerability to hurricanes, maybe worsen it. Solar, especially, is likely to be destroyed in a storm.

Rousselle’s plan also favors renewable energy for Puerto Rico, but renewable energy generated on the mainland. It is one of the project’s prerequisites of its utility partners that they supply only green energy.

At present, Puerto Rico is heavily dependent on fossil fuels with 44 percent of its electricity coming from natural gas, 37 percent from oil, and 17 percent from coal. Just 3 percent comes from renewables. Clearly, there is an urgent need to scrap the present expensive generation and to replace it with a cheaper, clean energy regime.

Rousselle had a distinguished military career in the Special Forces and the 7th Cavalry. A combat-disabled veteran, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

Forestry To Electric Utilities

He made his name as an inventor and businessman in the forestry industry. Working with NASA, he developed technology to inventory forests and individual trees from satellites.

This technology has had a seminal impact both in the forestry and electric utility industry. The technology is used today by utilities for vegetation control and power line security and is an IEEE best practice, and fundamental to the real-time rating of the bulk transmission grid.

Rousselle has also been an innovator in electric distribution technology. In particular, he has patented the transmission of electricity via movement of storage systems to the point of use rather than having them far from where they are needed. He is also pioneering the use of abandoned quarries for pump storage near truck charging stations.

In conversation, Rousselle’s favorite word seems to be “solutions.” He used it repeatedly when we talked, whether we were discussing tree harvesting, clean energy storage or Project Equity.

He believes power could be flowing through the subsea cables to Puerto Rico by 2029 or 2030.

At a time when NIMBY activists stymy most big electricity projects, there is something appealing about the Puerto Rico project. Fewer permits, more impact.

The case for Project Equity, as laid out by its supporters, is compelling. Rousselle and his team are canvassing Wall Street for investment.

Informally, the government of Puerto Rico has told him that the idea is a winner.

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