Time for Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands to Go All Green
October 8, 2017
Harvey Wasserman / Truthdig.com & David R. Baker and Wendy Lee / San Francisco Chronicle
The terrible global-warmed tragedy that has ripped through Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands now offers us a unique opportunity -- and a vital imperative. As Elon Musk and others in the business of clean, green power have made clear, the islands' centralized fossil-fueled electric grids should not be rebuilt. Instead, they advocate entirely replacing them with decentralized, community-owned micro-grids, powered by solar panels, wind turbines and locally grown biofuels.
Time for Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands to Go All Green
Harvey Wasserman / Truthdig.com
(October 6, 2017) -- The terrible global-warmed tragedy that has ripped through Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands now offers us a unique opportunity -- and a vital imperative. As Elon Musk and others in the business of clean, green power have made clear, the islands' centralized fossil-fueled electric grids should not be rebuilt.
Instead, they advocate entirely replacing them with decentralized, community-owned micro-grids, powered by solar panels, wind turbines and locally grown biofuels. That conversion would guarantee the islands a cheap, secure energy supply while fighting the global warming that made these hurricanes such fearsome destroyers of life and property.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria have stripped these American territories of their fossil-fired electric grids. The devastation includes more than 50 Puerto Rican hospitals going dark, with tragic loss of life.
Without pumps for water, cell towers for communications, refrigeration for food and medicines, and so much more, the islands' immediate future is grim. The official four-to-six month timeframe for restoring the central electric grid guarantees more death and desperation.
Nearly all the islands' power has come from fossil fuel burners, including one fueled by coal imported from Colombia. Electric rates are far higher than on the mainland United State, worsening the debt so cruelly cited by Donald Trump immediately after disaster struck.
About 2 percent of Puerto Rico's electricity has come from wind and solar. Some installations sustained serious damage. But at one 40-acre flower operation, three-quarters of 244 solar panels -- installed six years ago at a cost of $300,000 -- sailed through the storm, and were producing usable power the next day.
The 44 turbines at the 101 megawatt Santa Isabel wind farm on Puerto Rico's south side also escaped serious damage (as did some 12,000 Texas wind turbines during Hurricane Harvey).
Tesla's Musk helped green nearly the entire energy supply of American Samoa, as well as much of Hawaii's island of Kauai. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are far larger. But advanced collectors and battery storage systems, along with a new generation of wind turbines, are poised to quickly replace the islands' rickety, obsolete energy supply system with a green network of storm-proof micro-grids -- and a showcase for global change.
The Caribbean is also fertile ground for biofuels to power the region's automobiles. Brazil runs a very large portion of its vehicular fleet by turning bagasse, a byproduct of growing sugar, into an alcohol-based fuel that's far cheaper and more efficient than imported gasoline.
And the islands could use a massive influx of LED lights, along with other energy-efficient technologies to streamline demand.
But micro-gridding will be key. The islands are mountainous, with many remote villages. Most could be made self-sufficient quickly with local networks powered by rooftop panels, small wind arrays and homegrown biofuels.
In the cities, grids that go neighborhood by neighborhood and building by building can be pieced together far more cheaply than with the wasteful, obsolete reconstruction of a national pole-and-wire dinosaur.
Tesla already is shipping in Powerwall solar/battery arrays. The Sonnen Company is lending expertise acquired in Germany's energiewende conversion to 100 percent renewables. Even lacking the Caribbean's intense sunlight and steady breezes, many German communities are headed to complete energy self-sufficiency based on rooftop panels and local-owned turbines.
As renewable prices continue to plummet, the Caribbean islands should follow Germany's lead, and take Elon Musk's offer to help them go totally green.
Irma and Maria have exacted a terrible price for wiping the slate clean.
But with their abundant solar and wind resources, Puerto Rico and its Caribbean neighbors can emerge relatively quickly and cheaply with a sustainable, import-free network of local-based micro-grids.
Their reward will be far lower long-term rates and a modern, reliable energy supply system designed to survive the next global-warmed wave of killer storms.
Tesla, Facebook, Alphabet Leap to Puerto Rico's Aid
David R. Baker and Wendy Lee / San Francisco Chronicle
(October 6, 2017) -- Desperate to restore power to his storm-ravaged island, the governor of Puerto Rico turned to Twitter in an effort to get help from an unusual source -- Tesla.
After exchanging tweets, Gov. Ricardo Rossello and Tesla CEO Elon Musk spoke Friday about using clean-power technologies to bring electricity service back to the island, after Hurricane Maria largely destroyed its already troubled electrical grid.
Although still best known for its luxury electric cars, Tesla also offers solar power systems as well as batteries for storing their energy. Tesla started shipping hundreds of its Powerwall battery packs last week to Puerto Rico, most of which remains without electricity two weeks after the storm hit.
In response to a question from one of his Twitter followers, Musk wrote that Tesla had provided electricity service to islands before and could do the same for Puerto Rico, if the island's government and people wanted the company's help. For example, Tesla installed a solar power plant with matching battery packs on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, selling the electricity to the local utility.
"Let's talk," he tweeted to Musk. "Do you want to show the world the power and scalability of your #TeslaTechnologies? PR could be that flagship project."
Musk accepted the invitation.
"I would be happy to talk," he wrote early Friday. "Hopefully, Tesla can be helpful." The two spoke Friday evening, and Rossello tweeted that it was a "great initial conversation," with "next steps soon to follow."
Musk also responded on Twitter to reports that some installation companies on the island had been jacking up the price of Powerwalls and selling them for a high premium. Tesla would cut off shipments to any installer caught doing so, he wrote.
Tesla's unveiling of its electric semitruck, expected this month, will now occur Nov. 16, Musk said. The delay is partly because of increased battery production for hurricane-ravaged areas, as well as "bottlenecks" in the rollout of its Model 3 car, he said.
Tesla is not the only Silicon Valley company lending its expertise to Puerto Rico's recovery.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week said his company's connectivity team was sent to Puerto Rico "to deliver emergency telecommunications assistance to get the systems up and running." About 90 percent of the island's cell towers were out of service, he wrote in a post on his Facebook page.
"We're working to get Puerto Rico back online," Zuckerberg wrote. He also said the company is donating Facebook ads to send "critical information to people in the region on how to get assistance and stay safe."
Project Loon, an effort within Alphabet's division X, said it is exploring options for using its technology, which is still under development, to help Puerto Rico. Loon uses balloons to provide wireless Internet service in hard-to-reach places. It would need to be integrated with a telecommunications firm's network to deliver signals, said X spokeswoman Libby Leahy.
"We're working hard with the Puerto Rican authorities to see if there's a way for us to use Loon balloons to bring some emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need," she said.
Musk has long cast the transition to clean energy as one of Tesla's core missions, starting well before its acquisition last year of SolarCity.
He has also touted the ability of Tesla's batteries to help electrical grids in trouble. The company is creating the world's biggest lithium-ion battery installation, in Australia, that will be linked to a nearby wind farm. The project came in response to a massive blackout. Musk promised to get the project built in 100 days or provide it for free.
Puerto Rico's electricity grid was already in dire shape before Maria struck the island on Sept. 20. Since then, some analysts have called for rethinking the way the island generates and delivers electricity.
About 47 percent of its electricity comes from burning oil, while 34 percent comes from natural gas and 17 percent from coal and renewables provide just 2 percent, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
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