More than a month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s aging electric grid, 80% of people on the island are still without power. Most are also without access to clean water. Two of the world leaders in solar power and microgrids — Tesla and sonnen — are making heroic efforts to provide power to hospitals and other critical facilities.
A Bankrupt Utility Company
A big part of Puerto Rico’s troubles can be traced to the economic woes of PREPA, its publicly owned utility company, which is more than $9 billion in debt. Most of the island’s generating facilities, which use diesel generators, are located in the southern part of the island, while most of the demand is in and around the city of San Juan in the north. That means the island’s grid has to rely on high-tension transmission lines that traverse Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior.
Puerto Rico Is Ideal For Microgrids
The island is considered an ideal candidate for a more distributed grid arrangement, with many small solar power plants feeding local microgrids fortified with battery storage to keep the electricity flowing after dark. Rather than the entire island depending on a conventional grid, the microgrids would be self sufficient in the event of an emergency.
Think of the existing Puerto Rico grid (and most other conventional grids) as a string of old-fashioned Christmas tree lights — when one goes out, they all go out. In a modern, distributed grid, a series of microgrids are connected to each other, but if one goes out, the others keep right on doing what they are designed to do, which is provide electricity to local customers.
Manuel Laboy, Puerto Rico’s secretary of economic development and commerce, told Bloomberg in a telephone interview this week that the government is considering partnerships with a number of solar energy companies, including Tesla, sonnen, Arensis, and Sunnova to replace the island’s decrepit utility grid with solar powered microgrids. He thinks FEMA funds could be used to pay for the work. Congress on October 24 approved a $34 billion emergency aid package for the island.
Tesla & Sonnen Act Swiftly
Tesla and sonnen are not waiting around for negotiations to proceed and contracts to get signed. Tesla has rushed an entire system of solar panels and Powerpack battery storage units to the island to provide local power to the Hospital del Niño in San Juan.
The company tweeted it is just the “first of many solar+storage projects going live.” Tesla has discussed how it can help with Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery efforts with Governor Ricardo Rossello in a series of Twitter messages. The governor and Glorimar Ripoli, chief innovation officer for the island, want to make Puerto Rico a model of what Tesla solar power and grid storage systems can do for the world.
Hospital del Niño is first of many solar+storage projects going live. Grateful to support the recovery of Puerto Rico with @ricardorossello pic.twitter.com/JfAu11UBYg
— Tesla (@Tesla) October 24, 2017
Elon Musk has contributed $250,000 of his own money to relief efforts for the island and moved the reveal of the Tesla Semi back a month so Tesla employees can concentrate on building battery storage units for the island.
Sonnen, which already has experience building more than 21,000 microgrids of all sizes around the world, is also pushing forward with plans to bring its technology to the beleaguered island.
“Clean and affordable energy for all is the mission of our company. It is what we believe in and it is what drives us every day,” says Christoph Ostermann, sonnen’s founder. “What is happening in Puerto Rico is a tragedy and as fellow human beings, it is our duty to stand firmly with the people of Puerto Rico and do everything possible to help start the rebuilding process. From my perspective, there is a clear connection between our mission to support humanity during a climate disaster and our mission to fight climate change.”
Blake Richetta, head of sonnen in the US, says “Our smart energy storage system is uniquely positioned to serve as a critical resource during the emergency in Puerto Rico, as it is a fully integrated system with all the components needed to form a true microgrid without requiring an initial grid connection.” That’s especially relevant as there is no grid left to connect to.
The Curious Whitefish Connection
There is a weird story about Puerto Rico and its electrical grid woes making the rounds at this moment. It has just been revealed that PERPA has entered into a $300 million contract to rebuild the existing grid with Whitefish Energy, which is located in the tiny town of Whitefish, Montana. The company has been in business for all of two years and, until very recently, had a total of two employees.
Essentially, Whitefish Energy will be a broker, hiring private contractors to perform the work. The problem is, PERPA is broke. It says it signed with Whitefish Energy only because it was the only company that agreed to begin working without a multi-million-dollar deposit. Where the money is going to come from is not clear at this moment.
Do we know anyone else from Whitefish, Montana, population 6,000? Well, yes, in fact we do. Ryan Zinke, the putative president’s Interior Secretary calls the town home and just happens to know the owner of Whitefish Energy.
Is there a story of corruption, greed, and power here? We don’t know, but lots of people are asking questions about the deal. CNN Money reports that several members of Congress want to know more about the transaction and The Sierra Club is also looking into how a two-person operation in Montana got a $300 million contract in Puerto Rico.
Will Puerto Rico Move Into The 21st Century?
The result of all this is that Puerto Rico stands on the threshold of an amazing opportunity to demonstrate to the world how clean, zero-emissions electrical energy could be generated and distributed in the future. Will the promise be realized?
Oddly, existing laws require funds from the federal government to be used to put things back together exactly as they were before Hurricane Maria cut a path of destruction across the island. Why American taxpayers should be expected to pay for a brand new 19th century grid is a question that apparently none of the solons in Washington, DC, ever gave a moment’s thought to, not that that’s any big surprise.
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