Or if it’s not, as Tommy Lee Jones observed in the movie No Place for Old Men, “It’ll do til the mess arrives.” That was a dark movie, and this is a dark time for 3.5 million American citizens. While Puerto Rico is not a state, its residents ARE Americans. They pay taxes. They vote for the President, although not this one. Now they are citizens in crisis, largely abandoned by therest of us. They will struggle without power and basic life support services for months to come; far too many will needlessly suffer and die.
Finally, the Navy has been dispatched with emergency generators, with hospital ships, with helicopters and some of the rest of the massive humanitarian capacity that the mightiest military in the world has at its fingertips. It only took 8 days for this to happen.
Why? Because Puerto Rico is broke. When Florida faced Irma’s wrath, tens of thousands of utility workers from across the South staged themselves and their gear so that they could restore power as soon as the winds subsided. But the Florida utilities are ready and able to pay for repairs—with, of course, hefty contributions from the Feds. Despite this, nursing home patients perished without life-saving electricity, their voicemail pleas to the governor subsequently deleted.
Imagine the situation now in Puerto Rico. The utility is broke. And its customers are brown. What is going on there now is racism as wicked as the Nazi march on Charlottesville. Its economy benefits the rich, as it creates almost 12% unemployment among the middle class and blames the poor. Its aging power system is 98% fossil fueled, all of that imported, increasing the Territory’s debt.
The Federal reaction that seems to be some variant of “Oh well, it was an act of god…” is thus not surprising. The Child-in-Chief tweeted, after noting that the island owes billions to Wall St, “And doing well…”
People, this is NOT OK. How the hell could this happen in a civilized country? How can we turn our backs on our fellow citizens in need?
If the ‘powers that be’ are impotent, how about a real hero?
Guess what? He’s there.
Last week, as soon as the hurricane cleared, Elon Musk ordered Tesla to start shipping Powerwalls to Puerto Rico. Hundreds of them. Elon personally donated $250,000.
This is not the first time Tesla has stepped up. When the natural gas well and storage facility at Aliso Canyon, operated by Southern California Gas Company failed, Tesla teamed with four other battery companies to set the world record for fast installation of utility-scale battery storage. Tesla, Greensmith, Samsung, AES and others met the shortfall with the largest utility-scale battery storage facility ever built. In six months’ time, 70 megaWatts of battery storage went live, the fastest ever constructed. In contrast, competing gas peaking plants would have taken years to build and required far more land. The exercise was driven by need, but in Puerto Rico such facilities, coupled with distributed solar, would even be cheaper than rebuilding the old grid. Even the Tweeter-in Chief noted, “It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape.”
Is taking Puerto Rico solar even possible?
Costa Rica now gets almost 100% of its electricity from renewable energy. Hawaii has committed to go 100% renewable. A recent study showed that especially for islands, a combination of solar and batteries would be cheaper than their historic fossil dependence. Already, utility scale solar and wind are being deployed at 2 cents a kiloWatt hour. Just running a natural gas plant costs at least 4¢. Coal and diesel cost far more.
Yes, the soldiers finally coming to the island can deliver the critical care necessary for immediate survival, but who will rebuild the place, and how will it be done? The Army Corp of Engineers will deploy diesel generators to hospitals, and villages for storage of medicines.
But this is not the real answer. Tasked with restoring the existing system, FEMA rules only allow rebuilding what has been damaged, not redesigning the system to use best practices and technologies. An old builder friend once said, “If you can’t afford to build it right the first time, how come you can afford to build it twice?”
Should Puerto Rico wait for its already-bankrupt utility to patch the old system back together? So the next Cat Five storm can take it out again? Of all the category five hurricanes to make landfall, one quarter of them happened in the last month.
Coincidence? No, climate change.
Puerto Rico already suffers some of the highest electricity prices in the nation, twice the national average and just below Hawaii. Almost wholly dependent on fossil generation and an island wide grid, it was ill-prepared for the wrath of the storm. In contrast, in many areas of Florida power outages were rapidly replaced with local solar. One city even installed solar powered traffic lights. Even there, though, many systems were grid dependent, so when the grid went down, so did the solar. How stupid. On my ranch my 5 kiloWatt system is grid intertied, so when I am at work on a sunny day, I’m selling power to the utility, but when floods islanded us in 2013, my isolation relay cut us free and the battery backup powered our lights, Internet, fridge and all essential services.
If Puerto Rico were an island of microgrids, some would have been damaged, but most would now be powering stoves to boil water, bringing light to the night streets and providing power to hospitals.
Sixteen people died on Puerto Rico in the storm, now more will perish now from lack of basic services. Carmen Yulin Cruz, Mayor of San Juan described the, “…horror in the streets. There is no electricity anywhere in Puerto Rico. People are becoming prisoners in their own homes....” She spoke of people without medications, food, or even drinking water. The hospital can take no more patients. A good portion of San Juan is flooded, the waters laced with sewage, gasoline and disease.
Who can help the people of Puerto Rico? Washington won’t. It’s too busy fumbling political footballs—literal and self-inflicted ones. It was too busy even to unblockade the island, so that aid from neighboring islands could reach the people until yesterday. Finally the Jones Act was waived for 10 days, enabling the flotilla of cruise ships that had already been rescuing people to avoid federal fines.
But after that…? The real answer is to rebuild using the best renewable designs and technologies.
Activists started a campaign to implore Elon to act: Elon, Puerto Rico needs you, but Elon already had. Now the rest of the renewables industry should step up. Stop whining about tariffs and utility surcharges. Gather your panels and inverters and batteries and head for Puerto Rico. And the Virgin Islands, and Tobago, and all of the places across the Caribbean and indeed the rest of the world where people are hurting. Wall St, if ever you want to get your bonds paid back, now is the time to mount a real rescue. Corporate America, it’s great that you’re all talking about going 100% renewable. How about helping American’s in crisis? Exxon, Chevron, Shell and the rest of the fossil purveyors, your carbon emissions caused the fury of the hurricane. It’s time to make reparations. David and Charles Koch, you gave $21 million to the groups defending Exxon’s climate cover-up. How about funding something that matters?
Let’s all pull together and rebuild our 51st state. Here’s how you can help: https://www.fastcompany.com/40472650/how-to-help-puerto-rico-10-things-you-can-do-for-hurricane-maria-victims-right-now.