A match made by Maria? Puerto Rico needs power. Tesla founder has solar energy system

View of broken power lines poles on the streets of Yabucoa town after Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico.
View of broken power lines poles on the streets of Yabucoa town after Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s dilapidated state electric utility, already in bankruptcy when Hurricane Maria hit, is now flat on its back, providing power to barely 10 percent of the island.

The question that billionaire tech entrepreneur and Tesla founder Elon Musk is putting to the island is: Why not try something innovative, and let me rebuild your power grid with solar?

Island Gov. Ricardo Rosselló tweeted to Musk on Friday: “Let’s talk today.” He told Musk that he’d like to see Tesla Solar “globally showcase the power of its technology.”

But the utility executive working in the trenches to get the island’s lights back on offered a different message: Wait a sec. Heavy industry on the island needs an energy source more reliable than solar.

The back-and-forth showed the complexities at play as utility customers fume over indefinite outages, the utility managers cope with the reality of $9 billion in debt and the governor seeks to turn catastrophe into an opportunity to bring innovative tech to his island.

Into that maelstrom stepped Musk, the visionary founder of electric automaker Tesla, rocket maker SpaceX, and SolarCity, a company that weds solar panels with energy storage systems.

Musk responded Thursday to a tweet about an article appearing on the website Earther that said Puerto Rico has a “once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink how it gets its electricity.” The article suggested that independent solar and battery systems could ensure that power stays on when the next hurricane hits.

“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,” Musk tweeted.

Rosselló, who holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering, offered enthusiasm. “Do you want to show the world the power and scalability of your #TeslaTechnologies? PR could be that flagship project,” he tweeted to Musk, referring to Puerto Rico.

“Hopefully, Tesla can be helpful,” Musk tweeted Friday, adding a few minutes later, “I look forward to talking later today.”

Rosselló expanded on the matter at a press briefing Friday: “I’m very serious about considering innovative technology, about green energy generation in Puerto Rico.” He didn’t say how the bankrupt utility would pay for such a project.

For his part, Ricardo Ramos, chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island’s quasi-governmental utility, has his hands full trying to restore power and stave off a humanitarian crisis.

Fully 85 percent of Puerto Rico’s transmission and distribution infrastructure “is destroyed,” Ramos said, and in the southeast of the island the grid “does not exist anymore.”

The utility, which entered bankruptcy in July, had few reserves when the storm hit Sept. 20 and faced stiff terms from creditors as it shopped for equipment to replace the destroyed system, he said. Fortunately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in, and is handling rebuilding in about a third of the island, he added.

Authorities vow to expand electricity service from 10.6 percent of the island today to 25 percent within a month, Rosselló said.

Late last year Tesla installed an $8 million solar grid and battery system to power Ta’u, an out island in American Samoa with a few hundred inhabitants. And last month, Tesla started construction of a 100-megawatt battery plant in South Australia that can power 30,000 homes. Musk pledged to finish in 100 days.

Ever the pioneer, Musk last week announced a goal of creating a city-to-city rocket transport system that could jet a passenger between London and New York City in 29 minutes.

Ramos, the utility chief, offered a somewhat tepid response to Musk.

“It’s not like Hawaii or other islands which are largely based on tourism or other economic activity,” Ramos said. “We have an industrial base that requires 24/7 power.”

Some utility experts think PREPA would save money and build a resilient system by using stronger poles and power lines, waterproofing substations and burying some power cables.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the solar industry applauded Musk’s approach.

“Why would one recreate an infrastructure that could be devastated in a storm when the technology of solar plus storage exists?” asked Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group based in Washington.

Tim Johnson: 202-288-9536, @timjohnson4