Solar: Elon Musk already got a San Juan Hospital running & more to Come

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

As Techdirt reported, Elon Musk has already put up a solar power generating facility at the Hospital del Nino 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.

And here is a picture of the panels:

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 Nino 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.

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11 Responses

  1. As a former residential builder I remember traveling to Atlanta to attend a conference on solar power. At that time ( Carter administration-sky high oil cost) I was shown an arcane system that used water pipes heated by solar panels. The heated water was then pumped to underground tanks filled with rocks. Fans would then suck the heat into the house. Forget about cooling the home. This was solar in its infancy.

    What I’m seeing now is so damn exciting. Yet as the good professor points out we need politicians who understand subsidies might be needed early on to make it feasible for the D.R. Horton tract builders to offer Musk’s solar roofing and battery wall.

    Unfortunately, Instead of progressive thinking politicians we see Trump proposing to build a 1300 mile useless wall at what could end up costing $15 to $20,000 PER FOOT! and their subsiding of what Mr. T calls “Clean coal” (the proposal if for customers of utility companies to pay more on their monthly bill to offset the inefficient use of coal for generating power. )

    Further more, instead of calling for engineers who understand solar and wind power to run for office, this week Franklin Graham called for more Christians to run for office so that sex education will no longer be taught in schools.

    It appears our Shining City on a Hill is destined to be blocked from view by pollution.

  2. but, but, Shock Doctrine of Naomi Klein says a disaster is the perfect time to jump in and make a killing

    probably others will link the story about the Trump related group off and running to install electricity in Puerto Rico. What was a rural 3 person company stands to build up to a $300 million construction project.

    ‘Can You Say Corruption?’ Puerto Rico Contract for Trump-Connected Raises Concerns
    Tiny company financed by a major donor to the Trump campaign and the Republican Party awarded no-bid contract to rebuild energy grid

    • do well by doing good? i suppose it’s only Shock Doctrine if it’s something the people DON’T want.

    • Simply reconnecting the vulnerable power lines to the obsolete oil-fired generators would have been cheaper than converting the whole island to solar and batteries…

      But not when the Trump Administration gets through with it. The same gang that made all your tax $ disappear in Iraqi reconstruction will always be tied to fossil fuels.

  3. Elon Musk found Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change untenable and resigned from the two White House advisory councils he sat on.

    link to theatlantic.com

    Trump holds grudges. Look for U.S. solar development to be virtually blocked and soon.

    link to cleantechnica.com

    According to EPA’s Scott Pruitt harvesting fossil-fuels is God’s way. Quoting Reverend Pruitt ‘True environmentalism is using the natural resources that God has blessed us with’

    link to thinkprogress.org

    Ungodly solar will die. Count on it.

    • Well, it will be crippled in the USA. Rest Of World has already made its choice.

      This is not an unforeseen development. Kevin Phillips’ 2007 book American Theocracy concludes with a section on energy and imperial decline. He notes that America’s predecessors as trade-driven hegemons, the Dutch and British, have a nostalgic fetish for the forms of energy that had put them on top, wind and coal respectively. The implication is that, back when they had to make the tough decisions to retain their dominance, they hesitated to keep up with their rival on exploiting new energy sources. I am more knowledgeable about the British side of that contention; it is complicated because Britain’s main motive to transition from coal to oil was not improving the domestic economy, but improving the range and speed of its warships attempting to dominate world trade routes. So sort of like today’s Pentagon pushing for renewable energy for its forces to deal with its intractable fuel supply chain issues in the middle of nowhere.

      But Phillips’ description of the growing nostalgia in America’s (Republican) heartland for the Good Old Days of cheap driving does presage the current obsession of the Trump gang in pushing a cult of fossil fuels that, like the Ghost Dancers, will magically restore the old prosperity.

      Now how long will it take for America to finally pay an undeniable price? The Dutch were probably as ruined by having to share a continent with the upheavals of the French Revolution as by any hesitation to adopt steam power; sometimes larger events overwhelm you. The British got bailed out from two disastrous World Wars by its replacement hegemon, thus hiding the price of its lagging technology and preventing a clean-sheet rebuild like what the Continent got.

      Well, no one’s going to bail us out; technically we’ve already been bailed out by the Saudis, Japanese and Chinese for 40 years and used that money to get into our current mess.

      • It’s not that the Dutch didn’t embrace steam. They did. And they burnt a lot of peat (ie the land under their feet) doing so. But peat compared to coal is a low quality fuel. In the end it was cheaper for them to import coal.
        link to peatsociety.org

      • As long as the U.S. is DOMINATED by fossil-fuels politically, economically and militarily any alternative energy sources will be diminished.

        Worthy of note: 2016 was a record year for atmospheric CO2.

        link to bbc.com

  4. Might turn out to be a clever plan. In the decades to come, foreign tourists might want to travel to the US, where coal fired power stations and petroleum powered autos belch toxins into air, the “land that time forgot” where common sense, health coverage, gun control and the metric system is yet to penetrate.
    A little like ‘slum tourism’ where tours show just how awful some places can be and how much better off you are at home.

  5. it would be great if Musk could do a few more hospitals. its pretty obvious Trump and his ilk want to hand out $300M to friends while not providing electricity to Puerto Rico. Wonder how much Whitefish will be donating to the Republicans?

    In British Columbia, Canada, B.C. Hydro sells its electricity from dams for 3 cents a kwh. Puerto Rico would be better off to use other methods to generate electricity and be done with Trump and his friends.

    Trump will most likely hand out more contracts to friends, announce the government has spent $5B on re building P.R. and they can’t afford anything more. In other words Trump gave $5B to his political supporters. We had a scheme like that in British Columbia for years. Appointed political friends to provincial boards, paid them and then the “friends” donated about the same amount to the governing party, the B.C. Lieberals. They aren’t in office any more.

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