When Tom Lewis recently touched down in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, what he saw on the way from the San Juan airport to the hotel where he and his team were headed seemed almost normal. The president of Louis Berger's U.S. division noticed some signs of damage – such as nonoperational traffic lights – but for the most part, the touristy areas of the island's capital city were functioning quite well.
“But then, the further you move out of the urban center, it deteriorates fast,” he said.
“On the way out of the urban centers you have downed poles and wires dangling and damaged structures that have not been touched,” Lewis said. “Then, if you move into the mountains it becomes very difficult very quickly to get anywhere fast. You can get there, which wasn’t always the case right after the storm, but you can at least get there even if it’s not fast.”
A global professional services professional services company headquartered in Morristown, Louis Berger is no stranger to dealing with disasters. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, Lewis was tasked with overseeing the removal of hazardous waste from the site, including asbestos, mercury and lead. The firm’s team worked alongside medical examiners in search of human remains.
Lewis also oversaw the disposal of anthrax sent through the mail in the days following 9/11, and was tasked with debris management after Hurricane Sandy.
Lewis recently led a group of Louis Berger executives to Puerto Rico, where the company has deployed over 700 employees, subcontractors and consultants to aid with the recovery efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA in the wake of the Hurricane Maria.
And despite how much time has passed since Maria made landfall in late September, Lewis said challenges still persist. He compared Maria to Sandy in their respective impacts, but added there are notable differences as well.
“[Hurricanes Sandy and Maria] certainly qualify as major natural disasters with very significant levels of destruction and very significant levels of power outage,” he said. “Where they absolutely are different is in the situation that existed [in Puerto Rico] prior to the storm hitting.
“The ability to restore or even the desire to restore what was there before is very different because [in Puerto Rico], if you just put back what was there before, [it] was not in very good shape to begin with. You’re dealing with very difficult, near the end of their service life — if not, far past the end of its service life — infrastructure.”
The firm anticipates deploying up to 1,000 people in the coming months with hopes of restoring power to the whole island, and expects to be a part of the USACE and FEMA missions until early next summer. The firm’s objectives are to restore emergency power to the island with the USACE and conduct home inspections as part of the FEMA mission.
Over 500 emergency generators have been deployed by Louis Berger and it anticipates being a part of well over a million home inspections. But Louis Berger has bigger plans for the island as well.
“What we’ve started to believe is that the future of power is in distributed generation and microgrids with battery storage so you can take all these tools … and combine them in an integrated fashion so that they work synergistically with each other as opposed to isolated from each other in an either/or proposition,” Lewis said. “That is what we’re trying to show here.
“We can use that kind of technology in the more remote villages and barrios. It is tailor-made for distributed power rather than having to get high-power lines into the mountains of Puerto Rico, which is very difficult and is very prone to damage from trees falling on it and other natural forces.”
Distributed generation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the integration of several energy sources, like wind and solar, into a traditional grid or a microgrid.
Puerto Rico can serve to showcase the functionality of distributed generation,” Lewis said.
“It is an ideal situation for the technology,” he said. “The need is so great and the length of time it is going to take for the exterior locations to be connected to the central grid gives us a nice long window of demonstration to prove that it does [work]. It really is the ideal situation for the demonstration for this type of technology. It’s just unfortunate for [the people].”
Microgrids, Lewis said, go hand-in-hand with distributed energy technology where, according to the DOE, a microgrid operates independently or semi-independently from the main power station.
Louis Berger currently is scouting locations throughout the island to test its distributed energy and microgrid program, which it will make a philanthropic effort for the opportunity to market the technology.
That, Lewis said, is one of the objectives, but the company has altruistic goals it wants to meet, too.
“We have a relationship to the Red Cross … where our employees give and the company matches,” he said. “Another way we participate is by directly donating our services. We do assessments of damaged areas sometimes. We did that in Haiti [after the 2010 and 2017 earthquakes]. We’re looking to do that here for a few places where we lend our engineers so they can energize and prioritize.
“In the case of the demonstration microgrids and solar-hybrid technologies, we are, along with our technology partners, willing to pay for some of the cost for a short period of time on our own.”
In the past few months, Louis Berger has worked alongside Elon Musk’s Tesla at San Juan’s Hospital del Niño (Children’s Hospital) where Tesla loaned solar panels and batteries to the hospital. Louis Berger supported the Army Corps of Engineers in connecting a micro grid to power the island of Culebra off the coast of Puerto Rico.
The project, Lewis said, was a sort of small-scale microgrid because it included solar and batteries, but can be seen as an approximation of what Louis Berger plans to do in more remote locations on the island.
Moving forward, Lewis expects private investment from companies like equity firms to play a significant role in Puerto Rico’s recovery.
“There is a role to be played with private funding,” Lewis said. “The old public-private partnership relationship is something that, in general, is continuing to grow in the United States in terms of the way to deal with infrastructure challenges and investment.