Could Puerto Rico rebuild its electrical system in a radical new way to use more renewable energy, lower costs and improve reliability? Two heavyweight players appear interested in the idea.
On Thursday, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted that his company, which also owns SolarCity, had built miniature independent power networks, or microgrids, on smaller islands by pairing solar panels with its battery systems, and that “it can be done for Puerto Rico too.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello responded on Twitter, saying: “Let’s talk. Do you want to show the world the power and scalability of your #TeslaTechnologies? PR could be that flagship project.”
The island’s electricity grid was devastated by Hurricane Maria, which knocked out power entirely. As of Thursday, only 11 percent of customers had the lights back on. Authorities have said it could be months before power is restored to most of the island.
The damage has prompted many renewable energy advocates to say the island’s grid—which was almost entirely reliant on fossil fuels—should be built back greener and more resilient. They say that building a series of microgrids—which would tie together solar or wind generation and batteries—could be cheaper and faster than trying to rebuild a centralized system reliant on large, conventional power plants. Once in place, they say, the system would be more flexible, cheaper to run, and better able to withstand future storms.
Jeff Navin, who was acting chief of staff in the Energy Department in the Obama administration before he co-founded Boundary Stone Partners, a clean energy consulting firm, said it would be technically and economically feasible for Tesla to build its systems across parts of Puerto Rico, perhaps working them into a more traditional grid.
“In some of these remote areas or rural areas, rather than building hundreds of miles of power lines, it would be cheaper to build microgrids,” he said. His firm works with Tesla, but Navin said they have not been involved in anything regarding Puerto Rico.
As Navin said, microgrids can work in tandem with a traditional grid. In Brooklyn, New York, for example, dozens of homeowners have signed on to a project that is trying to build a microgrid there that would allowing them to operate independent of the grid, if needed.
The tweets made what was a long-shot hope for renewable energy advocates in Puerto Rico suddenly seem within reach. But there are plenty of obstacles that could thwart the effort, said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which has been working with a group of businesses in Puerto Rico to push for more renewable energy.
Nearly half of the island’s power was generated with imported oil last year, and almost all of the rest came from gas and coal. Sanzillo said the territory’s government and its utility, called PREPA, have resisted efforts to boost their use of renewable energy.
“They are opposed to solar energy,” he said. “O-p-p-o-s-e-d.”
Still, Sanzillo said he’s holding out hope that the storm may have weakened some of that opposition. Oil is one of the most expensive fuels for generating electricity. Years of paying high prices for the imported fuel helped drive PREPA to declare bankruptcy in July.
Last week, TIME quoted Rossello saying he was interested in rebuilding differently. “We can start dividing Puerto Rico into different regions … and then start developing microgrids,” he told TIME. “That’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s certainly going to start lighting up Puerto Rico much quicker.”
Congress could erect another obstacle, if any aid package encourages building a more traditional grid instead. The biggest challenge may be the culture within the utility, said Mark Grundy, managing director of communications for the Rocky Mountain Institute, which works with other Caribbean islands to transition their power systems to cleaner energy.
“The working culture is to keep the lights on. It’s not to be bold and experiment,” he said. Of course, for most Puerto Ricans, the lights are still out. “You’re in a situation with a clean slate.”