The first thing Virgin Air’s Richard Branson noticed when he crawled out of his cellar after Hurricane Irma was the solar array. It lay on the ground unharmed while his Caribbean home and everything surrounding it had been totally destroyed. People noticed the same thing in Haiti and Florida, and Hurricane Harvey had snapped the power lines in Texas but no wind turbines had been destroyed.
If these systems had been part of microgrids they could have been operable both during and after the storms. But antiquated utility regulations required that they be shut down to prevent power surges that could endanger workers repairing the central grid, even though the technology was now available to isolate the microgrids.
As soon as he found a phone that worked, Branson called Amory Lovins his partner at the Rocky Mountain Institute. The hurricane set up the perfect experiment for the Institute and a personal challenge for the entrepreneurial billionaire who set up a fund for introducing innovative energy technology to the stricken islands.
The Caribbean island nations have to pay huge amounts of money to import fossil fuels to power their electric utilities. The cost almost equals the amount they earn from tourism. But if the islands switched to solar and wind energy, which they certainly have in abundance, it would not only cut down on their dependence on fossil fuels, but would make them more resilient and better able to bounce back from future storms.
But Richard Branson wasn’t the only billionaire eager to step into the breach left by President Trump’s tepid governmental response to history’s most costly hurricanes.
On Oct. 20, George Page, titular head of Google’s Project Loon, sent hundreds of helium-filled balloons from their launching site in Nevada to Puerto Rico. The balloons were controlled by inflating and deflating the balloons so they could catch winds that would carry them to Puerto Rico then stay stationary over the devastated island.
Working with AT&T and the Federal Communications Agency, Project Loon was able to use the balloons to allow people to start texting with their LTE iPhones thus bypassing 83 percent of the cell towers that had been destroyed, and helping 3.5 million people start regaining communication with each other and the outside world.
On Oct. 25, Elon Musk, not to be outdone, delivered hundreds of solar panels and energy storing batteries to Hospital del Nino in downtown San Juan near the Contado Beach area known for its highrise hotels, ritzy Cartier and Ferregamo shops, and active straight and gay nightlife scene.
All of Puerto Rico’s hospitals had lost their power and had been operating on generators that emitted nauseating diesel fumes that had not helped those sick and dying. How many people were dying was difficult to determine, journalists had to start visiting neighborhood morgues to get accurate body counts from the aftermath of the storm. FEMA was no help.
But Musk’s vision didn’t stop with getting one hospital up and running. The island presented him with the perfect opportunity to test his theory that you could use solar panels and batteries to create microgrids to power people’s homes and even their cars, Teslas of course.
Such microgrids would not only be able to stand up better to storms but would be able to be rebuilt and repaired more quickly after the storms passed. These were all important lessons for other hurricane prone coastal areas to learn.
Science writer Bill Sargent is a regular contributor to this page. His most recent book, “Plum Island 2017: Resurrection”, is available in local bookstores and through http://plumislandoutdoors.org and at www.ingramcontent.com.