Elon Musk’s Puerto Rico promise falls flat — the island needs more than just good intentions

Elon Musk’s Puerto Rico promise falls flat — the island needs more than just good intentions
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The situation in Puerto Rico is desperate. Hurricane Maria has wreaked havoc on the island, destroying thousands of homes and businesses. To date, many residents lack access to clean water and many basic services.

The question facing this nation is how can we best help the people of Puerto Rico, and get them back on their feet as quickly as possible. Sadly, this task is made more difficult, because the commonwealth is already facing a massive, $120 billion debt crisis.

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One of the biggest problems facing Puerto Rico is the electric grid. The wires, poles and other infrastructure that delivers electricity across the island was badly damaged by the hurricane. In our modern society, without access to reliable electricity, it is impossible to return to the everyday routines of normal life. Until this is remedied, the suffering in Puerto Rico will only worsen.

 

It is commendable that athletes, entertainers, faith leaders, governments and everyday people from around the world are lending a helping hand to the challenges facing Puerto Rico.

Which brings me to the recent statement by entrepreneur Elon Musk, that his company, Tesla, could rebuild the grid on the island and deliver reliable electricity generated from solar power. To Musk’s credit, Tesla has already done this for other, smaller islands, including in Hawaii and Australia.

Undeniably, the people of Puerto Rico would be better off if their electricity were generated from clean solar power. To date, Puerto Rico has been highly reliant on oil to generate electricity, which produces pollution and creates challenges from cost fluctuations to spills.

However, my concern is that what Musk is offering could have unintended consequences, and may only delay what needs to be done for the people of Puerto Rico, to get them back on their feet as soon as possible.

While we know for a fact that the current grid in Puerto Rico is badly damaged, we do not yet know just how badly damaged it is, and what is salvageable and what needs to be replaced. Before we rush off to give any one entity the authority to rebuild the grid, shouldn’t we have a better understanding of its current state? Tesla’s offer might be the right one for Puerto Rico, but it might not and there are other challenges to consider in order to achieve a fully solar powered island.

In order to put rooftop solar on people’s homes, their homes need to have structurally sound rooftops. Unfortunately, this is not the case for thousands of homes and businesses across Puerto Rico, due to the destructive winds generated by Hurricane Maria. It should also be noted that reports indicate that some large-scale solar power plants on the island were also destroyed. Installing solar does not necessarily improve Puerto Rico’s ability to fare better during the next hurricane.

Also, as a former statewide elected official, I have learned to ask the question: Where will the billions of dollars come from required to rebuild the grid and create a solar infrastructure powerful enough to electrify the entire island?

Will this be a government sponsored infrastructure project or paid for by the private sector, and do the private sector sponsors have the required financing to fund such a project? It is questionable if Musk could get the funding, given the fact that when private sector entities have provided solar power to other entities, there has been a credit-worthy customer ready to pay its bills on time. Given the financial woes of Puerto Rico and the post-hurricane devastation, that isn’t the case in the commonwealth.

I do not doubt the private sector’s desire, effort, or sincerity to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid. I know they are made with the best of intentions. But good intentions alone are the last thing the people of Puerto Rico need. Rather, a plan based on what can be realistically accomplished as soon as possible is what is desperately needed.

Michael Steele served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007 and as the chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011.