Most people probably associate Elon Musk with an unreachable ideal – electrics cars that most of us can’t afford, a solar roofing system that seems inconceivable – and equally beyond our financial capacity –and the desire to make space travel a real possibility. But for all of Elon Musk’s disruptive ideas – he has often been called “a disruptor” – there is another side of Musk, and Tesla, that exists quietly, without drawing attention, yet, is steadily shifting the role that solar energy can play – especially in times of crisis.
The Musk Foundation was formed in 2002, by Musk, whose former projects included Paypal, and SpaceX.
It’s focus? Grant making in the areas of renewable energy, science and engineering education, and pediatric health. Musk has also stated his support for an effort to preserve and turn the site of Nikola Tesla’s lab into the Tesla Science Center and Museum.
Yet as of recently, the Foundation has found itself in a pivotal position to help in areas hit by disaster.
The first one was donated to the South Bay Communities Alliance’s Hurricane Response Center in Coden, Alabama, in 2010. The Musk Foundation donated the funds and SolarCity, a company now also owned by Musk, donated labor to build a solar power system for a hurricane response center in southern Alabama to provide renewable power with battery backup to an area that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The 25-kilowatt system is one of the largest in the state of Alabama, consisting of 108 solar panels manufactured in Tennessee, and it will produce 90% to 100% of the center’s electricity use.
Then, in 2011, Musk donated $250,000 to build a solar power system in Soma City, in the Fukushima prefecture of Japan, after it was devastated by a tsunami earlier that year. Much of the eastern portion of Soma had been flooded by a devastating tsunami following a massive earthquake on March 11, 2011. The city is about 43 kilometers north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of the nuclear accident caused by the tsunami. Soma City’s agriculture, dairy and fishing industries were devastated by the tsunami, and tourism had been hurt by concerns about any lasting effects of the nuclear disaster.
Again, SolarCity donated the time and resources to manage the project, which now provides renewable electricity to a city facility located on reclaimed industrial land not suitable for agriculture.
The solar arrays consisted of high-efficiency solar panels manufactured in Japan, and were installed by local workers in Fukushima. The project served to create local construction jobs and further acted as a model for the reuse of disaster-stricken areas in other parts of Japan for clean energy generation.
And just this year, Tesla is again stepping up after Hurricane Maria flattened the island of Puerto Rico.
Coordinating efforts with Governor Ricardo Rossello, Tesla’s solar team is working to outfit Puerto Rico with power facilities that could be used to generate and store power reserves when the existing grid isn’t available, as it has been since the hurricane. The first facility will serve the Hospital del Niño, with a combination of solar cells and Tesla’s Powerpack commercial energy storage batteries. That should mean it can not only generate power from the sun’s rays in times of need, but also store up a reserve that can be used to provide power around the clock and throughout varying weather conditions, even when the sun isn’t shining.
When Tesla noted on Twitter that this is just the “first of many solar+storage projects going live,” Rossello and Puerto Rican Chief Innovation Officer Glorimar Ripoli proposed turning the territory into a flagship example of what Tesla’s solar technologies can do for the world.
That proposal seem to be coming to fruition. Tesla has also been shipping its home Powerwall battery storage units to the island for help restoring the grid, and Musk himself donated $250,000 of his personal money to support relief efforts. Tesla also postponed its electric semi-truck reveal event to November in order to focus on helping establish facilities like this one in Puerto Rico.
Musk’s role in aiding areas hit by natural disaster seems fitting. He is again redefining the future – often in ways we didn’t know was possible.
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