Although the infrastructure crisis in Puerto Rico is an ongoing humanitarian disaster, there is a bright spot in news from the beleaguered island. Tesla is swooping in with Powerpacks and solar panels to help re-establish Puerto Rico’s power grid, starting with a major children’s hospital.
When Hurricane Irma made landfall on Puerto Rico, some of the strongest eyewall winds made a “direct hit” on key power infrastructure. The island was already heavily reliant on diesel plants for power generation; now that so many roads have been washed out, it’s hard even to get diesel to individual homes so people can use generators. 74% of the island is still without power, and the hospitals are staggering. Surgeries are being performed under cell phone flashlights. But at one facility — the Hospital del Niño — power has been reestablished courtesy of Elon Musk. Tesla has installed a 500kW battery capacity with enough solar panels to keep the array charged. Puerto Rico is typically considered an excellent candidate for solar power, with its high number of sunny days and near-equatorial location.
Elon Musk made contact with the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, via Twitter. (Policy over Twitter, diplomacy over Twitter, humanitarian aid negotiation over Twitter — sure does seem like a happenin’ joint these days. Maybe I need to quit yelling at people to get off my lawn and go read some 140-character witticisms.) And the comments of Musk and Rossello (PR governor) are, if not exactly brimming with mirth, certainly forward-looking.
Beyond the work that Tesla is doing, Elon Musk donated a quarter million dollars of his own personal money to relief efforts in Puerto Rico. The Powerpacks are themselves on loan for free during the crisis, and afterward, a deal could make that donation permanent. The Powerpacks can serve as grid storage during Puerto Rico’s transitional period here. They’re made of the same 18650 cells that comprise the iconic Tesla “skate.” (the flat battery pack on vehicles like the Model S).
Renewable power makes good sense for remote locations like Puerto Rico, where all fuel has to be brought in by cargo ship. The US territory’s electricity costs were higher than any US state save Hawaii before Hurricane Maria, and Puerto Rico is much, much poorer than Hawaii.
Wind shear completely destroyed the power lines on Puerto Rico. As the venerable climatologist Ron White explains, “it’s not /that/ the wind is blowin’, it’s /what/ the wind is blowin’.” Debris toppled electrical towers and severed lines, while floods and surf washed out roads and destroyed bridges. The unpleasant reality is that Puerto Rico is in a place where hurricanes go. Underground lines seem like a pretty solid idea, but only a few survived Hurricane Maria
But focusing solely on that metric misses some of the point. It is extremely difficult to build infrastructure that can withstand point-blank hits from maximally powerful storms. Deploying batteries and microgrids for local solar, however, still offers a potentially better outcome than relying solely on diesel fuel. With a microgrid system, there’s at least a chance that some of your solar panels or infrastructure might survive, particularly if steps are taken to make it easier to disassemble panels and move them into secure storage. While that kind of solution presents its own logistical challenge, it’s undoubtedly easier than trying to disassemble a conventional power plant and stuff it in a secure location.
Despite the feel-good nature of this story — and I’m genuinely glad to see Elon Musk helping out — the blackout in Puerto Rico is now the worst in US history. Rossello has said he wants to rewire the US territory by Christmas, but other estimates have stated it could take another six months to finish the job. It’s shameful to leave the country in this condition, given that its people are full US citizens who have no elected representatives with voting rights in the House or Senate. Meanwhile, the island is so desperately poor, most of its residents literally can’t afford to move to the mainland US. It’s an ugly situation that’s not improving nearly as quickly as the Puerto Ricans themselves deserve.