Car and energy company Tesla, striving for a world in which renewables play a more prominent role in production and storage, is eyeing an expansion into storm-ravaged islands of the Caribbean — and it could become a key player in shaping grids of the future.
The historic destruction wrought by hurricanes Irma and Maria on the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico this month downed once-operational and largely fossil fuel-powered grids, opening up the possibility for companies like Tesla to move in and establish a presence.
If utilities are restored with an eye toward the future, experts say, the islands might host new types of grids that could one day migrate to other parts of the world.
“I think entities like Tesla are going to be part of that story,” said Francis O'Sullivan, director of research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MIT Energy Initiative. “They’re building a technology package that will be needed.”
Creating these "microgrids" that can be more independent and electrifying homes through solar power have advantages in the event of a natural disaster, according to O'Sullivan, including increased "elasticity" that could keep some portions electrified even in the event of a widespread grid failure.
“In places like the U.S. Virgin Islands, it makes a whole lot of sense right now,” he said. “They should look to integrate today’s newer technologies and not simply rebuild the old system we had.”
He also noted that locations such as Kaua’i and the Virgin Islands are small enough that breakout companies like Tesla can get their minds around them. A benefit of their efforts, of course, is putting that technology on display not only for future consumers to see, but regulators, too.
Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based think tank, said the establishment of renewable systems are initially more expensive partially due to the requirement of high-capacity batteries to provide power at night, but hybridizing them with more traditional technologies could be ideal.
"It's not a crazy solution," Mills said, noting that sunny islands are logical destinations for solar solutions such as Tesla's Powerwall and Powerpack. "In situations like this, it's entirely possible in many communities, especially hybridized."
Mills, however, cautioned that while the systems can be more flexible, that doesn't make them impervious — solar panels can still be destroyed, eliminating a key power source for home-based or centralized batteries. usatoday