Google’s Project Loon, a balloon-based communications system that can provide phone connections in difficult situations, was approved by the Federal Communications Commission for use in Puerto Rico. FCC chairman Ajit Pai released a statement saying that it is time for “innovative solutions,” since nearly half of all residents in Puerto Rico are still without phone access.
With almost 90% of residents also without electricity, cell phone service is the most practical way to give citizens access to news, emergency announcements, and business connections that might help get Puerto Rico back on track.
Facebook, AT&T and T-Mobile have all sent teams to the Island to help get people connected as they wait for power to return. AT&T, for example, has temporary cell sites for Ponce, Arecibo, Humacao, Rio Grande, Mayagüez Mesa, Manati and Aguadilla. They’re planning to add coverage of Fajardo and Guavate. They have a special page to help friends and family find AT&T customers in Puerto Rico, too. Many people in the States have been unable to connect with friends and family on the Island for weeks now, and any help in getting word can make a big difference.
As for electricity, Elon Musk and Governor Rossello have been talking about options for bringing solar energy to Puerto Rico. There is talk of sending Tesla batteries to Puerto Rico to help power hospitals and emergency centers.
Puerto Rico’s energy needs are primarily served by two power plants: one in Salinas and one in Guayanilla. There is a third, coal-fired plant. Transporting electricity across such large distances from so few plants has not worked well. Neither has importing fuel for those plants. Solar energy makes a lot more sense.
Puerto Rico has lots of sunshine. Walmart Puerto Rico has used solar energy for a significant percentage of their electricity needs since 2011, with an eventual goal of 100% solar. Smaller companies using solar have been able to keep going after the hurricanes. Anecdotes and common sense suggest that solar energy will be an excellent choice for Puerto Rico, but details are still uncertain — including details about funding.
Ideas for replacing PREPA with something that works better are not in short supply. Figuring out how to bring Puerto Rico’s electrical system into the 21st century while also coping with PREPA’s debt may be the most challenging part.
In the meantime, one company wants to provide human-powered generators. K-TOR makes human-powered generators that can be used with standard electric outlets for instant electricity in emergency situations. Ken Torino, president of K-TOR, is trying to reach government leaders to offer help. It may be that this new tech based on a distinctly low-tech energy source will be a particularly practical option.
Safe water and sewer systems are one of the most important needs on the Island. At least four people have died from drinking contaminated water, and long-term health problems are possible. Since it could be months before electricity is widespread, it is not realistic to wait for the power to come back on before dealing with the water issues. Water filters are used around the world, and could be much easier to get to rural areas than generators. One individual in Oklahoma is gathering Lifestraws, portable personal water filtration devices, to take to Puerto Rico. The same company makes community-sized tools that operate without electricity.
Many more individual efforts are underway through online initiatives like GoFundMe. Most focus on filtration, which can make contaminated water much safer to drink. The government has handed out one million water purification tablets and 20,000 filters, but those numbers are small for an island with more than three million residents who have been without water for weeks. FEMA lists the efforts they are taking, but water filtration with modern methods could be faster and less expensive than trying to haul water to remote areas. With limited resources, individuals and charitable organizations could make a difference by taking advantage of new technologies.
Since patching things up is not an option in many parts of the Island, it makes sense to take advantage of innovative ideas when rebuilding Puerto Rico.