Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Switch

Why Musk is pitching solar panels to Puerto Rico even as residents struggle to get clean water

By Brian Fung

October 6, 2017 at 11:48 AM

In light of the damage to Puerto Rico's electric grid from Hurricane Maria, people like Tesla CEO Elon Musk are seeing the crisis as a chance for the island to move away from centralized, vulnerable electric power systems. (Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg News)

Elon Musk has big dreams for Puerto Rico. On Thursday, the Tesla chief executive said he would discuss building a high-tech solar grid for the island with Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

“Let's talk,” Rossello tweeted at Musk.

“I would be happy to talk,” Musk replied. “Hopefully, Tesla can be helpful.”

While Musk's idea wouldn't solve Puerto Rico's current crisis — 90 percent of the island is still without power, and many people are having trouble getting clean water — it could set the island on the path to sustainable, renewable energy, which could reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels and ultimately bolster its economy.

According to Rossello's office, Hurricane Maria ripped down power lines and disabled other critical infrastructure.

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Hurricane Maria made landfall about 30 miles southeast of San Juan on Sept. 20 and caused an island-wide power outage. (Harlis Arvey Montes)

Puerto Rico's electric company had already been in shambles. In July, it basically filed for bankruptcy, saying it owed $9 billion and needed $4 billion more to revamp its aging power plants, the median of which is 40 years old.

That was before Maria struck. Now, in light of the damage to Puerto Rico's electric grid, people like Musk are seeing the crisis as a chance for the island to move away from centralized, vulnerable electric power systems.

Among the “many smaller islands” Musk is referring to is the island of Ta'u in American Samoa. Last year, Tesla said it had wired Ta'u with thousands of solar panels and batteries that would meet nearly all of the energy needs of its 600 residents. It was an example of how, under the right conditions, an island population could shift almost entirely away from fossil fuels.

According to Musk, there's no reason something similar couldn't be achieved in Puerto Rico.

Musk isn't exactly going out on a limb here. Scientists and energy experts say that a distributed grid that doesn't rely on a single power plant for energy generation could help vulnerable island regions like the Caribbean weather strong storms like Hurricanes Irma or Maria.

Solar panels, which can feed their power into batteries and be linked together into local or regional power grids, are one example of a technology that could diffuse the potential risk out across a population. And at tropical latitudes, you get the most bang for your solar buck: Photovoltaic panels are more effective at energy generation than they are at higher latitudes.

The long-term economic benefits could be equally transformative. As The Washington Post's Chris Mooney has reported, island residents face some of the highest energy prices in the world because the vast majority of their fuel must be imported. Reducing those fuel costs by switching to wind or solar power could set these island economies on a more positive trajectory.

“When we are facing the sort of infrastructure destruction we have seen this hurricane season, it only makes sense to give some pause before reinvesting in the exact same system that proved to vulnerable,” Gwen Holdmann, who directs the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told Mooney. “If [Puerto Rico's] system were redesigned around microgrids incorporating local power production, there would still be losses, but the number and duration of outages due to severe weather events would decrease.”

So it's not surprising that solar advocates like Musk are reaching out to Puerto Rico.


Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications, Internet access and the shifting media economy. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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