Elon Musk’s broken Puerto Rico solar energy promises

This video from the USA says about itself:

As Elon Musk Proposes Taking Over Power Authority, Puerto Ricans Demand Community-Owned Solar Power

1 November 2017

While in Puerto Rico this past weekend, Democracy Now! spoke to Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, the head of UTIER, the electrical workers’ union in Puerto Rico, about Elon Musk’s proposal to make Puerto Rico the model of sustainable energy. We also visited the Casa Sol Bed and Breakfast in San Juan, which runs entirely on solar power.

Fossil fuel fat cats cause lots of misery in various countries. In principle, sustainable energy like solar panels should be a good alternative. However, when these solar panels are controlled by a billionaire like Tesla corporation boss Elon Musk … Musk in 2017 was one of the disaster profiteers aiming to make a fast buck off the Hurricane Maria disaster in Puerto Rico.

And now …

By Kate Sheppard in the USA, 19 May 2019:

Alexander C. Kaufman, an environmental reporter at HuffPost, was supposed to be on vacation in Puerto Rico earlier this year when he heard Tesla had all but abandoned the solar panels it brought to Vieques after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. Unable to turn down a good story, he made a side trip to the tiny island off the coast that has been subjected to numerous environmental hardships over the years.

Tesla had announced it was delivering solar panels to the island shortly after the storm, to great fanfare. And while the electric car and solar titan did bring the technology, it didn’t set up the infrastructure or resources needed to keep it running. Alex’s reporting revealed what happens when a gift goes awry.

How did you find out about the panels?

I was talking to a source of mine in the solar industry and mentioned I was heading to Puerto Rico. She tipped me off to what had happened with the Tesla equipment and connected me with an activist on Vieques.

What was the big problem here — a lack of resources, or inattention to the long-term needs of a place like Vieques?

Both. If Tesla’s goal was to show off what its solar panels and batteries could do, it accomplished that. But when the handful of Viequenses with the disposable income to invest in solar panels and batteries tried to buy some, the company told them the wait was anywhere from six months to a year. That’s in large part because Tesla was behind on production of its Model 3 car, and was redirecting its manufacturing efforts to building the vehicles. Then there’s the problem of maintenance. Vieques lost power when the storm severed the undersea cable that connected it to the notoriously dirty and fragile electrical grid on Puerto Rico’s main island. Once that power was restored, Tesla removed some of its equipment and left what remained without a clear plan or funding to keep it in working condition. On a humid, tropical island with lots of plants and a wild horse for every two humans living there, glass solar panels are vulnerable to a host of problems.

Do you think this is a problem with Tesla, or a bigger problem with just dropping solar in places that might not have the capacity to sustain it?

It’s a problem of relying on the charity of $41 billion corporations to do the hard work of providing lasting improvements to public infrastructure. There’s a reason Puerto Ricans call Vieques the “forgotten island.” It’s remote, accessible only by plane or unreliable ferry. It’s sick, literally, with higher rates of cancer and other diseases than almost any part of the United States, thanks to the decades the U.S. Navy used the island for target practice, firing depleted uranium munitions on a place thousands of American citizens live. Puerto Rico’s status as a territory stunted its development. It went into massive debt in the 2000s. A bunch of vulture funds on Wall Street now control that debt, and believe they’re entitled to be paid back before Puerto Ricans are entitled to public goods, like modern, clean electricity. So it’s easy to see why Tesla seemed like the best possible option for building a solar-powered microgrid, for which a sun-soaked island like Vieques is a pretty obvious candidate. But a company like that, which is beholden to its shareholders before anyone else, is never going to build and maintain something that isn’t making it money.

What did the people you talked to in Vieques think about the panels now, a year and a half later?

The opinions ranged from disappointment to cynicism. A lot of people thought Hurricane Maria was an opportunity to start over, and that Tesla was going to change things for the best. But a lot more people doubted any big institution coming from the mainland United States could come to Vieques with pure intentions. Remember, this is a place that rose up in rebellion against the U.S. military at the turn of the 21st century. They led fierce protests to demand the U.S. Navy stop bombing their island, and they won. That’s a rare distinction in world history. Considering their adversaries in that fight were their own federal government, it leaves a lasting sense that they’re really on their own.

Elon Musk is known for having … devoted … fans online. What was the reader response to this piece?

You know that “Simpsons” meme where Apu, representing Tesla fans, dives in front of a bullet headed for Homer, who in this case is Elon Musk?

There was a lot of that. There were also a lot of people, including at least one former Tesla employee, who wrote to me out of concern that stories that critically analyze companies’ philanthropic efforts will encourage those firms to withhold future charity, which sort of proves the point of the story in a way. I got a lot of routine hate mail, too, suggesting that the fossil fuel industry pays me to pump out anti-solar propaganda. Gotta say, I’m a little annoyed my check from Exxon Mobil hasn’t come yet.


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