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Tesla has solar projects on smaller islands, and Musk thinks they should be scalable to larger ones like Puerto Rico. Video provided by Newsy Newslook

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With the island’s electrical system still in shambles from Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico has taken a step closer to revamping its power grid using Tesla solar technology, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Saturday. 

Rosselló and Tesla chief Elon Musk had a 25-minute phone conversation Friday night where the two discussed relief efforts as well as Tesla playing a leading role, Rosselló said in an interview with USA TODAY.

Teams from Tesla and Puerto Rico’s energy sector will continue the talks early next week, Rosselló said. 

“I told him because of the devastation, if there is a silver lining, we can start re-conceptualizing how we want to produce energy here in Puerto Rico and distribute it and do it in a more reliable fashion,” Rosselló said. “It was a very positive first step.”

► Oct. 6: Tesla can help fix Puerto Rico's ruined electrical grid, Elon Musk says
► Oct. 6: Elon Musk delays self-driving truck to focus on Model 3, Puerto Rico power

Musk announced he was 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.”

Tesla already has constructed futuristic energy production and storage Powerpacks in American Samoa and Hawaii that include solar panels and enclosed batteries, reducing demand on traditional diesel-fueled grids that are common on islands.

In the case of Hawaii's Kaua’i Island, Tesla's system is expected to reduce fossil fuel demands up to 50% by 2019. 

In Friday's call, Rosselló said Musk offered consoling words about the devastation on the island and to help with immediate relief efforts. They also spoke about using Tesla solar technology to rebuild Puerto Rico's power grid, including a pilot run in the island-municipality of Vieques, which still pulls its power from Puerto Rico.

Rebuilding Puerto Rico's old grid is not the most efficient path forward, experts say. Experience gained in Puerto Rico — by Tesla or others — could one day migrate to other parts of the world.

► Oct. 1: Long lines for food, water and fuel and no electricity in Puerto Rico
► Sept. 30: Puerto Rico could face 6 months without power

“I think entities like Tesla are going to be part of that story,” said Francis O'Sullivan, director of research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MIT Energy Initiative. “They should look to integrate today’s newer technologies and not simply rebuild the old system we had.”

On Saturday, Rosselló met with a bipartisan contingent of five U.S. senators, who visited an island still in the throes of an emergency following Hurricane Maria’s ferocious trek across it 17 days ago.

Around 88% of households are still without power and nearly half of the island can’t access drinkable water. By contrast, 58% have no electrical service in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the other U.S. territory that Maria hit hard.

At least 36 deaths can be attributed to the storm in Puerto Rico, Rosselló said. 

Lawmakers in the coming weeks are expected to consider a $29 billion disaster aid package to pay for recovery efforts and federal flood insurance claims in Puerto Rico. Recovery efforts will heavily rely on passage of that package, the territorial governor said. 

Though the federal response has been robust and continues to grow, more is needed, he said. Promised teams with the Army Corps of Engineers to help fix the island’s battered electrical grid still haven’t materialized and boatloads of generators, also promised by federal officials, also will greatly relieve the island’s crisis.

The island’s water system is linked to the electrical system, so residents can’t get water until most of the power grid returns online. 

“We need that immediate relief package from Congress,” Rosselló said. “That should provide that runway for us to complete recovery efforts.”

The dealings with Tesla began as friendly Twitter banter. On Thursday, Musk tweeted that his team had rebuilt smaller islands’ power grids using independent solar systems “but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico, too.”

► Sept. 28: Puerto Rico is nearly entirely cut off from cellphone service
► Sept. 28: Florida, other states brace for exodus from Puerto Rico

Rosselló responded: “Let’s talk. Do you want to show the world the power and scalability of your #TeslaTechnologies? PR could be that flagship project."

That exchange led to Friday’s phone call.

Rosselló stressed that Tesla and Puerto Rican officials still are in the early phases of talks.

► Aug. 10: More cities require solar as prices fall and sea levels rise
►September 2016: The lights are starting to come back on in Puerto Rico

Even before Maria, Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was antiquated and heavily in debt. New solar panels linked together to feed into a regional grid would generate its own power, be less vulnerable to storms and cut down customers’ energy bills, according to energy analysts. 

Rosselló said he always has been interested in renewable energies. Given a chance to bring solar power to the island courtesy of one of the leading companies in the field was too big an opportunity to pass up.

“Even though we’re still in the emergency phase, the opportunity to rebuild better than before is one that I cherish and take very seriously,” Rosselló said. 

Contributing: Emre Kelly, Florida Today. Follow Rick Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis

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