The next time the people of Puerto Rico stare down an impending disaster from a hurricane, it may come with the confidence that the power grid will stand tall with them.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria's direct hit in September — an unparalleled strike that cut all power and permanently crippled more than three-quarters of utility infrastructure — officials are facing a crossroads on the island's energy future.
"It was already unsustainable; it was a terrible mess," Judith Enck, the former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator for Region 2, which includes Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, told Wired. "Even if you had a modest wind storm, people would typically lose power for days at a time."
In addition to a grid built mostly on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas (renewables accounted for only 2 percent of the mix in 2016), the island's infrastructure is also woefully out of date. Add some of the highest utility rates in the U.S., and it becomes clear the path forward cannot be a return to business as usual.
So how can Puerto Rico quickly turn its renewable power sector from a minor to a major supplier of clean energy? The answer may come from a company that has already been on the ground there, helping communities turn back on the lights ever since the storm cleared. According to Electrek, Tesla employees have been installing hundreds of the company's Powerwall battery packs, repairing solar arrays and helping local communities restore electrical service.
Electrek also reports that within the last few days, Tesla's Powerpack battery packs were spotted at Puerto Rico's airport. A single Powerpack has the same energy capacity as almost 16 Powerwall battery packs combined, according to Electrek.
Can Tesla rebuild the entire electric grid?
In response to a tweet asking if Tesla's technology could rebuild Puerto Rico's grid, Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk said the possibility certainly exists.
The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too. Such a decision would be in the hands of the PR govt, PUC, any commercial stakeholders and, most importantly, the people of PR.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 5, 2017
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello also opened the door for further discussions.
I would be happy to talk. Hopefully, Tesla can be helpful.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 6, 2017
The exchanges over social media are reminiscent of a bet Musk made earlier this year to help fix South Australia's struggling electrical grid.
Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 10, 2017
In September 2017, an agreement was made between South Australia, Tesla and a French wind farm firm to begin work on the project. Tesla also recently launched a 20-megawatt battery storage solution east of Los Angeles and a 44-acre site in Kauai, Hawaii, capable of 52 megawatt-hours of lithium ion battery storage.
If Puerto Rico were to move from a centralized to a decentralized grid (community-shared solar, wind and local battery storage), it would allow the territory to weather extreme events like Hurricane Maria without a total loss of critical services. In addition to Tesla's battery tech, the move to a clean grid would also necessitate a ramp up of investment in solar and wind energy.
“While renewables are potentially the answer for large storms, storage alone may be sufficient for smaller storms where residents and business need perhaps only 6 to 24 hours of power before electricity is restored," Edwin Cowen, faculty director for energy at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University, said in a statement. "As batteries are still on the expensive side, it does not make sense to store power for more than about 24 hours of critical infrastructure (think air condition or heating systems, refrigerators, medical devices, water pumps, some lights) so the next step is to include renewables and make a house truly ‘islandable’ for days or even weeks or months."
To learn more about how Tesla could help improve Puerto Rico's future grid, see the video below on the company's Kauai installation.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published.