Natural disasters create destruction and pain, but also open doors to opportunity. The tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan changed that country’s mind about relying on nuclear energy to create electricity. The devastation visited upon Puerto Rico and several other islands in the Caribbean this year has left their electrical grids in ruins. While that has created hardships for the residents, it has opened the door to discussing whether renewable energy companies like Tesla can and should be part of the rebuilding process.
A Once In A Lifetime Opportunity
James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa, Fla., says Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands have a once in a lifetime opportunity to embrace new technologies. “Solar is the right thing. Energy storage isn’t there yet, but it will be there and I think it’s a combination of including transportation. And you can design your islands to do that if you get your vehicles to use electricity.”
On the island of St. Johns, one of the US Virgin Islands, a homeowner used wreckage to spell out “Send Tesla” on the lawn next to his ruined house. Francis O’Sullivan, director of research at the MIT Energy Initiative has his own perspective on the issue. “I think entities like Tesla are going to be part of that story. They’re building a technology package that will be needed.”
According to USA Today, people at Tesla are already talking about how the company could get more deeply involved in rebuilding the Puerto Rico grid as well as the power systems of other Caribbean islands. Tesla has already begun shipping hundreds of its Powerwall residential storage batteries to Puerto Rico, but the conversation is now turning to larger Powerpack grid scale storage and solar arrays to create a series of microgrids across the island.
Time For The Microgrid Solution
That is not to say that solar panels can’t be damaged by storms like Hurricane Irma and Maria. But a power supply structure composed of microgrids is far more resilient than a conventional grid. That’s one of the reasons Tesla is racing to complete the world’s largest battery storage facility in Australia, where freak storms toppled the towers supporting high tension power lines connecting Melbourne and Adelaide earlier this year. It also has experience powering entire islands mostly with renewable energy, albeit on a smaller scale than would be involved in Puerto Rico.
“Part of the appeal of Tesla is locked in how the company is trying to be more transformative in a bigger sense,” O’Sullivan says. “They’re not just trying to sell you a car; they’re trying to sell you a better way of consuming life. That is the inherent value of their brand. Being involved in something that feels very new like delivering electricity in a new way to these storm-ravaged islands is an important part of the dimension.
Politics And Predators In Puerto Rico
The obstacles to transitioning Puerto Rico and its neighbors to renewable power may be as much political as technical. The island’s utility company owes $9 billion to Wall Street and the island itself has a massive debt of $123 billion, including $74 billion in bonds that are now in default and the subject of litigation in bankruptcy court, according to Bloomberg.
A comment to a story posted on CleanTechnica recently suggested simply giving the creditors the entire grid — which is practically worthless — and starting over from ground zero. A petition supported by MoveOn.org is demanding Congress simply cancel the territory’s debts so it can start fresh and build a new and brighter future. The alleged President so far has seemed far more concerned about his pals in New York than 3.5 million American citizens in Puerto Rico.
How Will Tesla And Musk Respond?
Puerto Rico is a thicket of complex problems that would take the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job to resolve. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for Elon Musk to step up, cut the Gordian knot, and propose a solution that would make Puerto Rico a shining example of the promise of renewable energy. After all, for someone who intends to build colonies on Mars in the next 20 years or so, solving Puerto Rico’s electrical problems should be child’s play.
Julius Caesar once said, “There comes a time in the tide of all men’s lives which, taken at the flood, leads on to victory.” Is this such a time for Musk? If so, it could be the breakout moment when he and Tesla sweep the doubters and naysayers aside and move the process of converting the world to renewable power forward by a decade or more. What say you, Elon?
Source: USA Today
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