GUEST COLUMN--As Techdirt reported, Tesla chief Elon Musk has already put up a solar power generating facility at the Hospital del Niño in San Juan, with a Powerwall storage capacity so that the electricity will still be there at night. Musk believes that this model could replace Puerto Rico’s old, destroyed power plants. (Photo above: A peek at Tesla's solar power project in Puerto Rico.)
Musk is certainly correct that Puerto Rico is crazy not to go solar. First, a Caribbean island gets lots of sunshine. Second, islands are unwise to feed the global heating beast of climate change, since they will suffer most. I made this argument before hurricane season with regard to Sint Maarten at the Nation.
Third, islands have to import expensive fossil fuels for power plants. The US Energy Information Administration informs us that before the monster hurricane that has left most of the island without power,
“In 2016, 47% of Puerto Rico’s electricity came from petroleum, 34% from natural gas, 17% from coal, and 2% from renewable energy.”
That mix made for high electricity costs, an average of 20 cents a kilowatt hour, whereas on the mainland the average is 13 cents. Petroleum isn’t usually used for electricity generation on the mainland but it is cheaper to import by sea via supertankers than is bulky coal.
Now since solar energy is free once you pay off the installation, it is a much better bargain– especially for institutions like hospitals and schools, which are going to be there for the long haul and so will certainly reap the benefits of free fuel over time. I’d say in a warm climate like Puerto Rico, solar makes special sense for schools and universities, since they don’t usually do much after dark anyway.
Just for comparison, Saudi Arabia just let bids for a 300 megawatt solar installation, and an offer came in from Masdar in the UAE of 1.79 cents per kilowatt hour. That is less than one tenth the cost of electricity in Puerto Rico today. Now, not everywhere gets as much sun as Saudi Arabia, and some people think Masdar is doing this as a loss leader for publicity and that it won’t make much money off it. But that is yet to be seen, and certainly this price point of less than 2 cents a kilowatt hour is where the industry is going. Since nuclear is 11 cents a kilowatt hour and coal is 5 cents a kilowatt hour, the other ways of generating electricity are increasingly looking very expensive by comparison.
So you’d have to have your head examined not to put all kinds of solar into Puerto Rico. But it wasn’t being done. The banks should be letting people roll rooftop panels into their mortgages, but there aren’t many financial instruments for homeowners in this regard. If there were, the revolution would come even more quickly. (The Koch brothers and other Darth Vader-like world-destroyers also do buy off politicians and have them put in laws disadvantaging solar and wind).
The other problem with solar panels apart from having to just pay for them out of pocket is what is called intermittency. That is, the sun doesn’t shine at night or very much on cloudy days, and wind doesn’t blow all the time. That is the point of Musk installing the Powerwall batteries, which Tesla developed. One costs $6200 and can be charged 100% off solar panels for 24/7 electricity. They are still a little pricey for homeowners but restaurants and other large establishments are buying them. That is what Musk put into the facility at the San Juan hospital.
Even now, Musk’s project in Puerto Rico makes economic sense. But it will make more and more economic sense as batteries get cheaper and panels fall in price and rise in efficiency. Portugal and some other places have also shown that you can use computers to feed in various sources of power, alternating from daytime solar to nighttime wind, e.g., which cuts down on battery use.
Musk’s little demonstration project at the Hospital del Niño isn’t just a feel-good story. It is a glimpse of a future that is about to arrive abruptly, so you won’t even remember burning lumps of coal.
(Guest Columnist Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and an occasional contributor to CityWatch. He has written extensively on modern Islamic movements in Egypt, the Persian Gulf and South Asia. This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s website.)