What Happens When Tech Giants Assist In Natural Disasters?
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the U.S. government didn’t step in to restore power. What happens when countries turn to private companies for infrastructure?
The following is an excerpt from The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World by Alexis Wichowski.
The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World
Citizen-users may engage with digital content, but they’re still grounded in a physical landscape. This chapter explores what net states are doing “IRL”—in real life—situating the ethereal internet, “the cloud,” in the physical world and tracing how our data is tethered to Earth through undersea cables and data centers. By tracking net state activity IRL, this chapter lays the foundation for a new way of looking at power: distributed not according to borders on a map, but through information flows, investments, and physical assets.
Never has Puerto Rico’s ambiguous status in the American experience appeared in sharper relief than in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. From 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday, September 20, 2017, when the category 4 hurricane made landfall in what would be the worst storm the island has ever seen—and the fifth-most-powerful storm to ever hit the United States—the island suddenly seemed to be on its own. The storm ravaged Puerto Rico, battering its 3.4 million residents with winds of 155 miles per hour and more than 30 inches of rain in a single day. As a point of comparison, Hurricane Katrina’s rainfall maxed out at nine inches after making landfall on the Gulf Coast; its major source of damage came from floodwaters.
“It was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico like a buzz saw,” reported meteorologist Jeff Weber from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “It’s almost as strong as a hurricane can get in a direct hit.”
Just three weeks earlier, in another part of America, Houston, Texas, had been hit by Hurricane Harvey, an equally powerful storm in its own way. Though less severe in intensity (it had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Houston), its rains were relentless, dumping 40 to 60 inches on the 2.3 million residents of America’s fourth-largest city over the course of 117 hours. Harvey flooded 40 percent of the city’s buildings and residences and broke the all-time record for hurricane rainfall in the United States. An estimated 82 people perished in the storm.
The federal government’s response to the flood damage in Texas was swift and massive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinated and deployed over 31,000 personnel from multiple agencies and organizations to the city even before the storm made landfall. President Trump personally toured Houston four days after the storm hit.
To Puerto Rico, with a population double that of Houston, FEMA sent fewer than 500 staffers. The president didn’t appear for almost two weeks. And yet the damage was far more severe than what had befallen Texas. Immediately after landfall, the entire island lost electricity. More than 95 percent of cell service went out. The chief executive of the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Ricardo Ramos, told CNN, “The island’s power infrastructure had essentially been destroyed.” Hurricane Maria’s death toll from the storm and its aftermath is estimated to be 4,645 people—more than 50 times higher than the loss of life in Texas following Hurricane Harvey.
Time went by. Things got worse. A week after the storm, almost half the population still lacked access to drinking water. Ten days later, that number increased to 55 percent.
Reporters covered the disaster from every angle imaginable—mostly doom and gloom: the loss of life, the dramatic absence of the federal government, the potential looming food shortages, and the consequences of long-term lack of electricity on a population of over 3 million. But one reporter took a different tack, identifying a rare opportunity. At 2:45 p.m. on October 4, 2017, Brian Kahn, a reporter with the environmental news website Earther, filed a story titled “Puerto Rico Has a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity to Rethink How It Gets Electricity.” A separate tweeter with about 9,000 followers then posted the story with the comment “Could @elonmusk go in and rebuild #PuertoRico’s electricity system with independent solar & battery systems?”
Elon Musk read that tweet and responded. Given that he has 23.7 million followers, it was rather extraordinary that Musk personally replied to the post. He tweeted, “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.”
Approximately eight hours later, word of Musk’s tweet had reached Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló. Rosselló tweeted back, “@elonmusk, let’s talk.”
Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk had long made headlines for his almost preternatural ability to plant a flag in future-leaning endeavors. Before most people were even using the internet, Musk cofounded PayPal, an online payment system, in 1998. He designed a proposed “Hyperloop” for high-speed mass transit between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with plans resembling schematics from Star Trek. He created SpaceX, which has successfully completed multiple restocking trips to the International Space Station, cornering the rocket launch market. And he formed Tesla, whose electric cars can travel upwards of 400 miles on a single charge. Musk is one of those rare people who can claim to “make life multiplanetary” within his lifetime and be taken seriously.
“@elonmusk, let’s talk.”
In 2015, Tesla broke yet more new ground when it plowed into the energy business. It launched Powerwall, a company that makes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery-pack kit—Powerpack—which stores solar power for homeowners. The kit can be bought outright (or with loan financing) or leased. “We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky called the sun,” Musk noted at Powerwall’s inaugural press conference. But existing batteries, he noted, “suck.” Powerwall, Musk promised, was going to make traditional batteries obsolete.
In the two years following the Powerwall launch, Musk lobbied hard to get consumers, businesses, and governments alike to adopt solar energy storage via his Powerwall system. He achieved only moderate initial success. In 2015—launch year—Queensland, Australia, which already had one of the world’s highest rates of household solar panel systems (with more than 88,000 such systems), entered into a year-long trial with Powerwall to test how it could integrate Powerwall with the state’s energy infrastructure. Gradually, Powerwall installations began to make gains beyond Queensland and into other territories in Australia, albeit on the consumer rather than the governmental level. In short, despite receiving a positive reception conceptually, Powerwall had yet to really gain a foothold in a large-scale energy grid. Its first big foray into a national public grid was in 2016, when Powerwall provided energy to the entire island of Ta’u in American Samoa. But benefiting a population of fewer than 600 residents, this hardly gave Musk the large-scale proof of concept he craved.
And for Musk, Powerwall wasn’t just some side-job, do-gooder passion project to save the environment. His work on solar energy was part of a larger plan, one that Musk began when he bought the solar energy company SolarCity. During a joint SolarCity-Tesla product launch in 2017, Musk spoke to the crowd of approximately 200 people. “This,” he said, gesturing to solar panels on the roofs of nearby houses, “is the integrated future. You’ve got an electric car, a Powerwall, and a Solar Roof.” As if to shoo away any naysayers in the crowd, he concluded, “It’s pretty straightforward, really.”
With Powerwall, Musk wasn’t just launching another business. He was adding to his vision of a future in which energy and transportation would be fundamentally altered from the systems our governments have traditionally relied upon. As noted above, Musk is already transforming transportation: with Tesla (electric cars), the Hyperloop (high-speed urban transit), and SpaceX (space transit). He’s transforming energy: with SolarCity (solar panels) and Powerwall (solar energy storage). Combined, these endeavors form puzzle pieces that create an interconnected infrastructure, one that controls how future humans physically will move from place to place and gain access to energy. In so doing, Musk is building a pseudo-public utility. It’s not “public,” in that government won’t own it; Musk will. But these projects in many ways act like public utilities, in that they theoretically supply “the public” with basic needs: energy and transportation.
With this backdrop in mind, it makes sense that when Hurricane Maria came along, Musk saw an opportunity, the chance he’d been waiting for to bring Powerwall to scale. Weeks after FEMA’s much-criticized response to Puerto Rico’s island-wide power outage, Musk stepped up with a tantalizing offer: not only would he donate Powerpack systems to Puerto Rico free of charge, but they could be used as a first step in rebuilding the entire energy infrastructure of the island.
The US federal government—historically responsible, at the bare minimum, for providing basic infrastructure such as power, roads, and water to its people—barely showed up to aid 3 million of its citizens. A tech company—historically responsible for nothing but its bottom line—stepped in with an offer not only to donate equipment but to assume management of the island’s energy, an essential piece of critical infrastructure.
Just five days after the Twitter exchange between Elon Musk and Governor Rosselló, Tesla shipped hundreds (no exact number could be confirmed by reporters) of Powerpacks to the island, each of which stores up to 210 kilowatt-hours (kWh). For context, according to the US Energy Information Administration, the average American home uses about 900 kWh of energy per month. In other words, one Powerpack could provide electricity to one home for about a week—assuming it was never recharged, which, in a sunny environment such as Puerto Rico, was unlikely to be the case.
And Musk’s Powerpacks continued to deliver benefits to Puerto Ricans even beyond the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria. During an island-wide blackout seven months later, in April 2018, Musk’s Powerpack batteries generated electricity at 662 sites across the island. The Powerpacks may not yet have turned into the island-wide energy infrastructure transformation Musk had hoped for. But at the very least, they put themselves on governments’ radar.
Excerpt from The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms our World by Alexis Wichowski. Published by HarperOne. Copyright © 2020 Alexis Wichowski.
Alexis Wichowski is author of The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World (HarperCollins, 2020). She’s also Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Innovation for the City of New York and an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University in New York, New York.