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Musk says Puerto Rico’s power grid could be built from the ground up with solar and battery packs

In the wake of two hurricanes, Puerto Rico’s power grid was blasted back to the stone age. In an effort to return power to the people who need it, Tesla has been shipping Powerwalls over to the island. Now, CEO Elon Musk says the company might rebuild the entire power grid, scaling up their battery-and-solar model to service the entire state.

Even before disaster hit, Puerto Rico wasn’t in the best place energy-wise — electricity rates were already quite high, at about US$0.20/kWh, and was drawn almost entirely from fossil fuels. Of course, this situation hardly improved after two hurricanes battered the island within weeks of one another. Change, however, begets opportunity. After it was pointed out that Puerto Rico’s destroyed grid offers the chance to build a new, better one, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter:

Musk is referring to battery-and-solar projects Tesla recently deployed to other islands, such as Kauai (where the company installed a very impressive Powerpack) or the American Samoa (where they set up a battery and solar panel microgrid). These projects are meant to supply small populations, granted, but Musk always insisted they’re easily scalable and could potentially power larger islands, or entire continents.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, later offered to talk through the idea with Musk.

However, this renewable grid would not be immune to subsequent disasters. Puerto Rico would still use power lines to feed larger users, which can be snapped by a hurricane, to serve larger groups of users, and the generators themselves would also be quite vulnerable. Some of Puerto Rico’s previous wind and solar farms were badly damaged in the recent hurricanes, amplifying the island’s energy woes. However, Tesla’s grid would be harder to knock out completely. By relying on solar generation instead of fossil fuels, it can be spread throughout an area, improving the odds that at least some parts will remain online and that normal operations can be resumed more quickly in the event of a natural disaster.

Tesla is already making efforts to restart Puerto Rico’s grid. The company’s home battery pack, the Powerwall, is being shipped to Puerto Rico to allow homeowners with existing rooftop solar panels to connect to these battery packs instead of the power grid in order to power their homes — or even communities. It’s more of a patch than a fix, however. Local installers are often difficult to get a hold of, and some are charging up to $12,000 for a Powerwall and its installation. Tesla’s website says that the Powerwall and the supporting hardware costs $6,200, with a “typical installation cost ranges from $800 to $2,000.

Given the outrageous third-party costs involved here, it’s no surprise that locals are increasingly turning to car batteries and inverters, which are both highly inefficient and increasingly rare in Puerto Rico.

Overall, the plight of Puerto Rico offers a great opportunity for renewable energy to flex its muscles. However, we mustn’t forget that this situation impacts real people, with very real consequences. Action — any action — is needed, and sooner rather than later.

New algorithm quickly identifies the most dangerous risks in a power grid

Power outages

ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTINE DANILOFF/MIT

ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTINE DANILOFF/MIT

Every summer, when power grids are pushed to the limits by air conditioning, there’s millions or possibly billions of failures which can occur. A single failure in the system can cause massive power outages throughout entire neighborhoods – or even cities.

To be honest, usually, a single failure doesn’t really cause this kind of black-out. But in many cases, two or three seemingly small failures that occur simultaneously can ripple through a power system – such was the case in Aug. 14, 2003, when 50 million customers lost power in the northeastern United States and Ontario (the largest power outage in North American history). The same thing happened in India, in 2012 – when no less than 700 million people (10% of the entire global population) were left without power as a result of an initial tripped line and a relay problem.

Modelling millions of possibilities

Power-Grid-Failure-in-North

To prevent similar small scale failures from having massive effects, researchers at MIT have devised an algorithm that identifies the most dangerous pairs of failures among the millions of possible failures in a power grid. Their algorithm basically “prunes” all the possible combinations down to the pairs most likely to fail and cause widespread damage.

They tested their algorithm on data from a mid-sized power grid model consisting of 3,000 components – which has over 10 million potential pairs of failures. Within less than 10 minutes, it successfully took out 99 percent of all failures, separating the 1 percent which were most likely to cascade into mass failures.

“We have this very significant acceleration in the computing time of the process,” Turitsyn says. “This algorithm can be used to update what are the events — in real time — that are the most dangerous.”

Working on the weakest links

Researchers tested their work on the power grid from Poland – the largest grid of any power system where its data is publicly available (good Polish guys for sharing the data). But what do you do after you’ve isolated the dangers? Well, you strengthen them.

The information can be used to design sensors and communication technologies to improve system reliability and security where the algorithm has shown the system to be most vulnerable. Operators can also temporarily reduce the use of air conditioners, to provide some relief to the system and prevent a cascade of failures where the danger is critical.

“This algorithm, if massively deployed, could be used to anticipate events like the 2003 blackout by systematically discovering weaknesses in the power grid,” Bienstock says. “This is something that the power industry tries to do, but it is important to deploy truly agnostic algorithms that have strong fundamentals.”

But understanding the vulnerabilities in a power grid is very complicated and delicate issue.

“The number of ways in which a grid can fail is really enormous,” Turitsyn says. “To understand the risks in the system, you have to have some understanding of what happens during a huge amount of different scenarios.”