Weeks after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico remains in desperate straits. The island–which is an American territory and whose citizens are full citizens of the United States according to both Supreme Court rulings and acts of Congress–is still almost entirely without power. Virtually every aspect of disaster recovery, from medical treatment to home reconstruction, either requires or is made orders of magnitude easier by electricity. And Maria didn’t just wreck Puerto Rico’s generating stations; it destroyed the entire transmission grid.
Elon Musk has now offered to help Puerto Rico out, possibly by deploying solar power around the island. Puerto Rico is ideally situated for solar power in many respects. It’s relatively close to the equator–closer than any location in the continental United States–and it enjoys high amounts of sunshine for most of the year. Musk’s company, SolarCity, has been absorbed by Tesla and has been looking for ways to scale its battery projects to more customers. Puerto Rico, with its 3.5 million inhabitants, would be an enormous lift for Tesla, possibly more than the company can really handle at this point. Tesla’s similar efforts in American Samoa extended solar power and battery storage to an island with roughly 1,000 inhabitants. Puerto Rico has a population more than 1,000 times larger.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Musk has raised an idea on Twitter and then carried it out as a long-term project; as The Verge notes, a Twitter bet between Musk and an Aussie software developer resulted in plans for what will be the world’s largest lithium-ion battery when the station is finished. And there could be other benefits as well.
Historically, Puerto Rico has faced the second-highest electrical costs of any US state save Hawaii and its power grid was never in particularly good shape. Before Maria, Puerto Rico’s power was generated by petroleum (47 percent), natural gas (34 percent), coal (17 percent), and renewable power (2 percent). The island no reserves of any fossil fuel, which means all of its conventional energy requirements must be carried by freighter. The island used to refine some of its own petroleum, but that practice ceased with the last refinery shutdown in 2009.
Building a power grid for the island that would cut its reliance on imported fossil fuels would be a major improvement, but it’d also be extremely expensive. There’s a great deal of work to do to hammer out any concrete proposals, and it’s not yet clear what kind of funding will be available. Puerto Rico’s economy was in terrible shape before Maria, with a debt load of over $ 70 billion dollars. Now the island’s situation is even worse, and as yet, we have no information on how or what Congress will do to help the territory–whose citizens are as American as any Texan or Floridian–recover their feet. The US government helped fund Musk’s previous work in American Samoa, but whether it will extend such support to the ravaged island of Puerto Rico is anyone’s guess.
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