In the wake of two hurricanes, Puerto Rico’s power grid was blasted back to the stone age. In an effort to return power to the people who need it, Tesla has been shipping Powerwalls over to the island. Now, CEO Elon Musk says the company might rebuild the entire power grid, scaling up their battery-and-solar model to service the entire state.
Even before disaster hit, Puerto Rico wasn’t in the best place energy-wise — electricity rates were already quite high, at about US$0.20/kWh, and was drawn almost entirely from fossil fuels. Of course, this situation hardly improved after two hurricanes battered the island within weeks of one another. Change, however, begets opportunity. After it was pointed out that Puerto Rico’s destroyed grid offers the chance to build a new, better one, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter:
The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too. Such a decision would be in the hands of the PR govt, PUC, any commercial stakeholders and, most importantly, the people of PR.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 5, 2017
Musk is referring to battery-and-solar projects Tesla recently deployed to other islands, such as Kauai (where the company installed a very impressive Powerpack) or the American Samoa (where they set up a battery and solar panel microgrid). These projects are meant to supply small populations, granted, but Musk always insisted they’re easily scalable and could potentially power larger islands, or entire continents.
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, later offered to talk through the idea with Musk.
— Ricardo Rosselló (@ricardorossello) October 6, 2017
However, this renewable grid would not be immune to subsequent disasters. Puerto Rico would still use power lines to feed larger users, which can be snapped by a hurricane, to serve larger groups of users, and the generators themselves would also be quite vulnerable. Some of Puerto Rico’s previous wind and solar farms were badly damaged in the recent hurricanes, amplifying the island’s energy woes. However, Tesla’s grid would be harder to knock out completely. By relying on solar generation instead of fossil fuels, it can be spread throughout an area, improving the odds that at least some parts will remain online and that normal operations can be resumed more quickly in the event of a natural disaster.
Tesla is already making efforts to restart Puerto Rico’s grid. The company’s home battery pack, the Powerwall, is being shipped to Puerto Rico to allow homeowners with existing rooftop solar panels to connect to these battery packs instead of the power grid in order to power their homes — or even communities. It’s more of a patch than a fix, however. Local installers are often difficult to get a hold of, and some are charging up to $12,000 for a Powerwall and its installation. Tesla’s website says that the Powerwall and the supporting hardware costs $6,200, with a “typical installation cost ranges from $800 to $2,000.“
Given the outrageous third-party costs involved here, it’s no surprise that locals are increasingly turning to car batteries and inverters, which are both highly inefficient and increasingly rare in Puerto Rico.
Overall, the plight of Puerto Rico offers a great opportunity for renewable energy to flex its muscles. However, we mustn’t forget that this situation impacts real people, with very real consequences. Action — any action — is needed, and sooner rather than later.