Can Tesla Rebuild Puerto Rico Power Grid? (Si Se Puede)

Hurricane Irma and Maria have devastated Puerto Rico. Elon Musk offered to help, and in a few short weeks, they’ve already installed a new sustainable energy system for the Hospital del Niño in San Juan (that’s the children’s hospital). Elon called this the first of many solar + battery projects going live in Puerto Rico.

This got me thinking, what if we wanted to rebuild all of Puerto Rico with these solar+battery combinations? What would it take, and would it last?

Today we’re going to take a look at what it would take to rebuild Puerto Rico with 100% solar and battery combinations from Tesla.

First, let’s revisit how we got here…On Wednesday, Sept 20th Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico with 155mph winds and feet of rain pouring down leaving 3.4M Americans without power.

Maria was technically a category four storm but came just on the heels of the most potent hurricane in record history, hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma wasn’t the direct hit to the US Territory that Maria was. However, it left nearly 1M without power for almost two weeks.

When Maria struck, it didn’t skirt around the island like hurricanes typically do; it cut straight across the middle of it.

Making things worse the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) had recently declared bankruptcy, losing 30% of its workforce since 2012. Aging infrastructure across the island makes the grid more susceptible to damage from storms; the median age of PREPA power plants is 44 years. Inadequate safety also plagues the company and local newspapers frequently describe poor maintenance and outdated controls.

All of these factors combined in the worst possible scenario for the 3.4M American’s living on the island, resulting in 100% power failure for the island.

Phone lines went down, generators kicked in while they still had diesel, and everyone did what they could to survive.
Even now, weeks after the disaster, many residents don’t have power, and all signs show that it will be months before the situation changes.

Tesla can make this happen for Puerto Rico. And they already are. But could they realistically convert the island over to 100% renewables using solar and batteries?

Yes, they can. In fact, they’ve done it before, in Ta’u in American Samoa and recently Kauai Hawaii. The island of Ta’u story is special though…In Nov 2016 Tesla unveiled a project it completed in Ta’u. Their report sated

The island of Ta’u in American Samoa, located more than 4,000 miles from the West Coast of the United States, now hosts a solar power and battery storage-enabled microgrid that can supply nearly 100 percent of the island’s power needs from renewable energy. This provides a cost-saving alternative to diesel, removing the hazards of power intermittency and making outages a thing of the past.

This was a baby step but an important one to highlight what’s possible. The island of Ta’u is tiny compared to Puerto Rico. But the next time Tesla attempted this was for a bigger island. The Island of Kauai in Hawaii. The project in Kauai was more recent, just this past March of 2017, and doesn’t cover the entire island, but is a much more significant system, like they one they’d need in Puerto Rico. In the announcement about the Kauai project Tesla stated

“To achieve a sustainable energy future the world needs reliable, renewable energy around the clock. The island of Kauai has an abundance of solar energy, but it can only be used when the sun is shining. Kauai burns millions of gallons of fossil fuels annually to produce energy at night. Until now. Tesla’s 52 MWh Tesla Powerpack and 13 MW solar farm will store solar energy produced during the day and deliver it to the grid during the evening hours to reduce a number of fossil fuels needed to meet energy demand. This dispatchable solar project represents the first time a utility contracted for a system of this scale that stores and delivers solar energy after sunset.”

They also just finished the install of the worlds largest battery installation in Southern Australia which is 129 MWh, nearly 2 and a half times as big as the Kauai system.

Still, this isn’t quite big enough to supply all the power that Puerto Rico would need. Let’s dig into the numbers here and see what it might take. For this analysis, the critical part to consider is the size of the battery backup. While Solar is an excellent option for Puerto Rico which averages 8.6 hours of sunshine per day, to obtain 100% of their energy from renewable sources they would need other options besides solar, such as off-shore wind.

So the Ta’u system clocks in with 6 MWh of storage, enough for three days of backup power for their 800 residents.

In Kauai Tesla installed a 52MWh storage system for the 65K residents of the island, so a big jump from Ta’u, but still small in comparison to Puerto Rico.

If we include the system in southern Australia we see that again Tesla made a big leap, going from 52MWh to 129MWh for the worlds largest lithium-ion battery that will provide power to over 30K residents.

In calculating the amount of energy Puerto Rico would need to go 100% renewable, I looked at their current energy output which is substantially larger than our previous examples.

Puerto Rico’s electricity generation is mostly fueled by petroleum and natural gas. In 2016, these fuels made up 47% and 34%, respectively, of the territory’s net generation. In 2016, coal made up about 17% of Puerto Rico’s electricity generation, and renewables provided the remaining 2%.

Now, Puerto Rico has 3.4M residents and is substantially greater, so if we extrapolate from the previous examples, Tesla would need to build a battery system close to 5,000 MWh or 5 GWh

That’s using data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory report from March of 2015 on the Energy Consumption in Puerto Rico.

This may look like a huge jump, and it is, but it’s entirely doable. And it wouldn’t need to be done in a single shot. Instead, Tesla could install many smaller battery systems across the island to build a more resilient system, similar to how many grids have decentralized solutions to eliminate any single point of failure, as was the case with the PREPA system.

You might be thinking this is all well and good, but a hurricane would destroy anything in it’s path right? Not exactly.

Batteries could be stored underground or in buildings made to withstand even the toughest hurricanes. So that’s a pretty obvious solution. For solar panels they need to be exposed to the sunlight to work. However, they’re typically certified to withstand winds up to 140mph or 225kph.

For example, During Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey was hit especially hard. New Jersey also has one of the highest solar power capacities in the United States. In the second quarter of 2012, just before the hurricane hit, the state had installed 103 megawatts of PV capacity. Analysis after Sandy hit revealed little to no damage to PV systems from the storm. According to a spokesperson for a solar system installer servicing over 200 customers in the regions of New Jersey hit hardest by the storm, a few metal casings covering wires from the panels were damaged by flooding, and one system had just two panels come loose.

src: http://news.energysage.com/solar-panels-hail-hurricanes/

Hurricane Maria was much bigger and more powerful then Sandy was. When Maria made landfall early Sept 20th it brought with it winds upwards of 155mph / 250kph which is above the 140mph rating of most solar panels.

As hurricane Maria cut across Puerto Rico, it left in its wake massive destruction. The thing about hurricanes is though that they weaken as they spread across the land.

So while some of the panels may have been damaged from the winds, it’s unlikely that ALL or even many of them would have been completely disabled.

Once the hurricane passed, the panels would have begun to generate energy again and assuming the transmission lines were buried from battery systems in protected areas, the power wouldn’t have gone out, and Puerto Rico would be in a much better place than it is right now.

All said and done, it’s possible. Solar and batteries alone could do it, but it wouldn’t make sense to put all the eggs in one basket. A mix of renewables would be the best approach with large-scale battery backups spread across the island.

As vox Umair Irfan reports, however “refashioning Puerto Rico’s grid is not a question of technology. Rather, the dire state of the territory’s finances poses a significant obstacle to new investment in its energy infrastructure. Ultimately, building a greener, more resilient, independent grid rests on whether there are enough money and political will to see the vision through.”

So, unfortunately, the question is if, rather then how. The good news is that lots of companies are positioning themselves to help and billionaire philanthropists such as Richard Branson are getting into the mix by setting up green funds to help rebuild the grid in the Carribean using renewable technology.

As I’ve said before if you can help the people in Puerto Rico, please do so. This is a severe humanitarian crisis, but with your help, hopefully, it can be a story of how they turned things around by switching to more sustainable forms of energy.

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