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On Puerto Rico’s 'Forgotten Island,' Tesla's Busted Solar Panels Tell A Cautionary Tale

After Hurricane María plunged Vieques into darkness, Tesla's arrival heralded the dawn of a microgrid future. But it wasn't that easy.

By. Alexander C. Kaufman

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico ― It looks like something out of a brochure advertising what renewable energy could offer a remote, storm-ravaged island.

Electrical lines still hang perilously from poles across the street, but inside the mint-green, one-story Ciudad Dorada senior center, fans blow cool air and refrigerators stocked with insulin and other medicines run cold even as the noon sun broils in a cloudless Caribbean sky. On its roof are a set of Tesla photovoltaic solar panels, attached via cable to a pair of Tesla batteries hitched to the wall beneath.

And yet, a diesel generator growls on full blast behind the center.

Workers from Tesla, billionaire Elon Musk’s electric car and solar energy giant, arrived on Vieques just weeks after hurricanes Irma and María crippled the aging electrical grid and severed the transmission cable that connected this island to the Puerto Rico mainland seven miles west. The company selected the senior center as one of 11 sites on the darkened island that it would equip with power-producing panels and batteries.

Constructing the system was simple. But when workers attached the panels and batteries to the old electrical wiring in the former schoolhouse, the batteries blew out.

“It doesn’t work,” a nurse at the senior center said in Spanish during a HuffPost visit in late February. “It never has.”

The circuitry issue proved ominous. Officials promised that Tesla’s effort heralded a brighter future on Vieques, one that would free the island from dependence on fossil fuels and make it a model for the rest of Puerto Rico. But apparent supply shortages, regulatory hurdles and a lack of long-term planning dashed those hopes. Today the island still depends on dirty power from the mainland, and some solar panels and batteries sit useless and broken with another hurricane season less than a month away.

“We’re back to square one,” said Edgar Oscar Ruiz, 34, a local activist pushing for renewable energy on Vieques. “Tesla came in with great intentions, but that’s not enough.”

Vieques’ experience shows what renewable energy experts say are the risks of relying on corporate goodwill to deliver transformative change and highlights the potential hurdles that Puerto Rico now faces as it seeks to convert the territory’s entire electricity system to renewable energy and sell off parts of its public utility.

“There’s a cautionary tale here,” said Andrea Luecke, president of the Solar Foundation, an industry nonprofit.

A Sunny Proposal

Tesla staffers arrived in Puerto Rico a week after Hurricane María made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, and before many relief workers. By November, the company sent an unsolicited proposal to the Puerto Rican government. The pitch included building solar power microgrids ― which would produce and distribute power autonomous of the territory’s main electrical grid ― on Vieques and Culebra, its smaller, more touristy neighbor. The content of the proposal, though never made public, is confirmed in a study released by the Puerto Rican government. Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló touted the effort in December 2017.

“These projects are part of the measures we are taking to build a better Puerto Rico after the passage of Hurricane María and ensure a reliable service for the benefit of the citizens who reside here,” Rosselló told Radio Isla 1320 back then.

Around the same time, Tesla contacted the municipal government on Vieques to begin talks about buying public land on which to build a microgrid, according to Carlos Jirau, a development consultant working for the mayor.

“Tesla was asking for the possibility to acquire land from the municipality to develop a microgrid,” Jirau said. He said he requested a formal proposal but never heard back.

It’s easy to understand the opportunity Tesla saw. In 2016, the company had converted the entire electrical supply of Ta’u, a 600-resident island in American Samoa, to solar power and batteries. A year later, Tesla built a massive solar and battery farm on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Vieques represented not only another test case for its technology but a chance to do some good. The island ― dubbed “the colony of the colony” by some locals because of its history of human and environmental exploitation ― was languishing in what would become the second-longest blackout in world history.

Tesla worked quickly. It installed equipment at the Susana Centeno Hospital, the island’s lone medical center. It deployed units to Ciudad Dorada, the Boys and Girls Club of Vieques, an elderly daycare center, two water supply plants, a sewage treatment facility and three private homes occupied by elderly, single women.

“We’re just trying to be as helpful as we can in Puerto Rico,” a Tesla spokesman told HuffPost. “We had employees on the ground working to restore power as soon as the hurricane cleared, and we still have full-time employees there to this day. We’re committed to our efforts to expand clean energy there, including the large number of current and planned solar and storage installations across the island.”

For the most part, those targeted efforts to restore power after the storm succeeded. The company convinced many on the island of solar energy’s potential and several other sites are now also installing panels, according to Mark Martin, a coordinator with the nonprofit Vieques Love who worked with Tesla.

“Vieques was abandoned,” Martin said, so the speed with which Tesla got electricity flowing again left an impression. “It was a culture change,” he said. “On the island, you can see a turn in the thinking.”

But larger permanent changes to infrastructure were limited.

At one water treatment facility, the battery sat dormant and, during HuffPost’s visit to the site in late February, the field of solar panels was overgrown with weeds and brush. Several panels bore the shattered imprints of horse hooves, a predictable problem on an island with one wild horse for every two humans. The hospital ― damaged and mold-infested from the storm ― was permanently shuttered. After they helped to power a makeshift medical center, Tesla moved those solar panels, along with other equipment, to some of the 11,000 other sites it started work on across Puerto Rico.

Tesla didn’t boast about its Vieques projects specifically, and it wasn’t the only company to send equipment to the island; San Francisco-based Sunrun also deployed units after the storm. But Tesla’s efforts earned the most praise