Can Google's Project Loon and Tesla's Solar Grid save Puerto Rico? 

Profile picture for user Jerry.bowles By Jerry Bowles October 15, 2017
Google and Tesla are stepping up to offer help where the US Federal government is slow to move. While the ideas sound good in principle, there are hurdles to overcome. The upside is that these efforts, if successful. will provide proof points for sustainable resources.

project loon
Project Loon balloon

Exactly a month after its formation and nearly a month after Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria, more than 90% of people on the island still don’t have power, 83% don’t have access to wireless cell service, and only 55% have clean drinking water.  Big tech is rushing to the rescue.

The devastation of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria was so complete and the pace of recovery has been so slow that some of the nation’s biggest tech companies are reaching deep into their innovation labs to offer possible temporary or long-term solutions.

Firms like Microsoft, Cisco and Facebook have teams on the ground, but the two most unlikely, innovative (and maybe impossible) plans to help fix the dangerous lack of power and communications are from Google and Tesla. Will this gee-whiz stuff work?  We're about to find out.

Google’s Project Loon

Because 90% of the cell towers were destroyed in the Category 4 storm that left the island’s communications infrastructure in shambles, 8 in 10 residents still have no telephone service.  Last week, the Federal Communications Commission granted Google parent Alphabet’s Project Loon an experimental license to operate in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands until April 4th, 2018 for the purpose of helping the islands regain connectivity.  Said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai:

Millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services. That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island.

The Loon project consists of a network of high altitude balloons that rise like weather balloons to a height above 65,000 feet. The platforms, which are solar-powered and inflate to the size of a tennis court, use artificial intelligence (AI) to “steer” the balloons by raising or lowering them to piggy-back weather streams and literally “ride the wind” to reach a destination. They are super-pressurized to withstand over 100 days in the stratosphere.

Loon works by receiving signals from a telecom partner on the ground, and then sending them on to cellphone users.  That means Loon needs a local carrier partner, which could be a snag in Puerto Rico where much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. Said Alphabet spokesperson Libby Leahy:

You can think about Loon balloons like a floating mobile phone tower. To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network--the balloons can’t do it alone. We’ve been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who’s been lending a hand.

Project Loon was initially launched in 2013 as a possible way to deliver internet connectivity to rural and remote areas but it has disaster relief experience. Its balloons were successfully used to deliver cell service last year to flood-ravaged areas of Peru when hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and the Peruvian government declared more than 800 provinces to be in a state of emergency.  Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, said of that effort:

Project Loon and Telefonica have been able to work together to provide basic Internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people who would otherwise not have had connectivity in flood zones around Lima, Chimbote, and Piura. More than 160 GB of data has been sent to people over a combined area of 40,000km2 — that’s roughly the size of Switzerland — and enough data to send and receive around 30 million WhatsApp messages, or 2 million emails.

Puerto Rico offers a much bigger challenge. In Peru, Project Loon and local carrier Telefonica had already been working together on tests for months before the flooding began.  On the other hand, Project Loon has been launching its balloons from Puerto Rico since the project began so there is the kind of local good neighbor connection that can often produce wonders in disaster situations.

Tesla Solar Grid

The always visionary Elon Musk floated on Twitter the idea of helping Puerto Rico get back on its feet by revamping the island’s power grid with renewable energy.  Within minutes, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello tweeted back:  “Let’s talk.”  The two are talking and if they can come up with a deal (and, most importantly, if Tesla can pull it off), it would be huge win for both parties.

The timing seems perfect.  Puerto Rico’s electrical grid has the second-highest electrical costs of any US state except Hawaii and was an old, inefficient and unreliable wreck before the storm.  The territory has lots of sunshine year round. Rebuilding around solar would give the island a chance to leapfrog many other locales saddled with aging power grids.

Musk’s company, SolarCity, was recently absorbed by Tesla and has been looking for ways to scale its battery projects to more customers. Puerto Rico, with its 3.5 million inhabitants, would be an enormous challenge for Tesla. Last year, Tesla built for the Pacific island of Ta'u  a new solar-powered microgrid, which shifted the entire island’s energy generation from 100 percent diesel fuel to 100 percent solar. The island's population varies with the season but usually falls between 200 and 600 people. Hardly on the same scale as Puerto Rico, more a proof of concept.

The $8 million project was funded by the U.S. Department of Interior and the American Samoa Power Authority (ASPA.) Tesla’s similar efforts in American Samoa extended solar power and battery storage to an island with roughly 1,000 inhabitants. Puerto Rico has 3.5 million people. Nonetheless, Musk seems confident that his solution will work.  He wrote on Twitter:

The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too. Such a decision would be in the hands of the PR govt, PUC, any commercial stakeholders and, most importantly, the people of PR.

Musk is taking the talks seriously.  He has already announced that he is delaying the unveiling of Tesla’s new semi-truck and diverting resources to its battery-producing Gigafactory in Nevada in part to “increase battery production for Puerto Rico and other affected areas.”  Hundreds of Tesla Powerwall battery systems are already in Puerto Rico and Tesla employees are in the territory helping with installation and training for maintenance.

My take

At this stage, both Google’s Loon Project and Tesla’s solar powered electrical grid are more aspirational than real.

Project Loon’s success depends upon finding a local carrier with enough juice left to relay cell traffic to its floating towers.

Musk’s idea depends on who’s going to pay for the new solar grid and how it will be financed.

The most encouraging change that has come out of the disaster is that large business organizations are not waiting for the Federal government to come up with solutions but are taking active roles in the affected community to move forward immediately with the urgency the crisis needs.

That may mean treating the disaster as a humanitarian crisis first, and a possible business opportunity later. For the sake of Puerto Rico and as a model for how to help in future disasters, we should all hope that Google, Tesla and the other firms that are aiding in the recovery are successful in getting the lights on and the phones ringing as quickly as possible.