Vieques Community Workshop on Social Recovery

By Oscar Ojeda-Cana and Hilyarit Santiago-Robles


Between January 15 and 16, 2018, on the island of Vieques, the Community Workshop on Social Recovery was held. More than 30 people attended from different fields, which created a transdisciplinary and enriching environment. Attendees ranged from active residents to non-profit organizations, both local and external, and private companies guided by a socio-environmental commitment. Governmental employees, such as the Director of Municipal Emergency Management and a federal employee from the Department of Health and Human Services were also in attendance. In this workshop, different conversations were held regarding the history of Vieques, how it was affected after Hurricane Maria, and several initiatives for a new energy system in Vieques.

Robert Rabin narrates the history of vieques

Robert Rabin narrates the history of vieques

Robert Rabin, general manager in Radio Vieques, an expert activist, received us with an exciting and synthesized, yet holistic, history of Vieques, its rich cultural heritage, and its “victory” against the most powerful army in human history (the U.S. military). The morning continued with a presentation by Dr. Cecilio Ortiz García, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez and co-founder of the INESI organization. The National Island Energy and Sustainability Institute (INESI) is an organization that connects the eleven campuses of the University of Puerto Rico on energy and sustainability related issues. Dr. Ortiz-García opened with an explanation of how the acceptance and social innovation of renewable technologies for an effective energy transition lies in the fact that this technology -and preparation for its maintenance- is accessible to all socio-economic strata.

Then, the Director of Emergency Management in Vieques spoke about the extraordinary damage that occurred in Vieques after the hurricane. Some of the challenging experiences included 60 to 80 days or more without a continuous ferry (only one running a day), the lack of communication with the big island, and not being able to produce food or energy on Vieques. Residents also had difficulties equipping houses with access to water due to the lack of energy, difficulty with transporting patients since the hospital was damaged, lack of a pharmaceuticals, and access to only one doctor for all of the island. He shared how the greatest complication turned out to be having to address several of these problems simultaneously while overcoming communication difficulties and without immediate access to resources. This proved especially difficult when initiatives were inhibited by the central government bureaucracy in conjunction with administrative instability of government agencies, especially PREPA.

In the midst of the discussion between other participants, such as Mercy Corps, attendees shared perspectives and best practices, met through pizza and coffee, and proposed community liaison strategies and proposals. The workshop, organized by Footprint, had the purpose of creating an environment to develop solutions. The company Hivecube had the task of presenting a solar-powered container home as a tool to mitigate energy instability. The community and design experts gave constructive criticism for better implementation of the technology. The federal representative from the Department of Health and Human Services informed the community of the beginnings of a medical implementation plan in the Fajardo region and how a collaborative network between hospitals and diagnostic and treatment centers (CDT) was being cultivated. Vieques does not need to wait for a hurricane to lose lives; its island-state municipality is not self-sufficient in providing basic services, which keeps it constantly vulnerable--practically all food, energy, water, and tools, come from the Mother Island.

The workshop concluded with a presentation by a recent graduate of UPR-Mayagüez, Oscar Ojeda-Cana, who succinctly spoke of the Oasis of Light (Solar Oasis) as a tool of resilience. The concept is based on a plan of identification and strategic community engagement, training workshops, and implementation of a design adapted to the community. The goal of it is to be a mobile educational tool and to provide an immediate response to lack of electricity. The Solar Oasis also hopes to encourage an environment of exchange and collaboration within the home and community, with the vision of developing a micro-network to decentralize and reduce dependence on grid-tied energy . He presented information provided by UPRM electrical engineers, which estimate that a relatively minimal investment ($7,000-7,500) can finance a 2 kWh emergency solar system with 5 kWh storage, capable of operating a simple refrigerator, pair of lights, and even an installed A/C. The Oasis demonstrates that energy transitions do not happen overnight and require extensive participation in order to make sustainable technologies affordable to all socio-economic strata.

 
The exterior of the Fortin Conde de Mirasol in Vieques, site of the workshop

The exterior of the Fortin Conde de Mirasol in Vieques, site of the workshop

 

Preparedness and Response in Vieques

by Garrett Burnham

Hector García of the US Department of Health and Human Services speaks to the group on new strategies for Resilience in Vieques

Hector García of the US Department of Health and Human Services speaks to the group on new strategies for Resilience in Vieques

At our conference in Vieques, the convened community members, organization leaders, and students received a presentation from Hēctor García of the US Department of Health and Human Services on potential plans to develop an alternative healthcare communication network across Puerto Rico that would greatly increase the coordination and effectiveness of the overall system. The basic premise of the proposal was the development of a hub and spoke network of hospitals and health centers to distribute information, materials and deliver patients to the best possible care in a more efficient manner. The planning and creation of this network would be based on set criteria to determine the ability of an existing facility to operate as either a hub or spoke. Some facilities would be omitted if they did not meet the following criteria: sufficient potential utilities, effective communications systems, actual and potential bed space requirements, storage capacity, geographic vulnerability, traffic and transportation access (land, air, and sea), workforce capacity and capability, and potential locations for Federal Medical Stations (FMS’s) with Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT’s) if needed.

The intent of these criteria is to ensure that all members of the network are operational after a disaster, prepared for an influx of patients, able to sustain aid, and are properly able to communicate with one another to avoid confusion and provide quick responses.

The proposal specifically cited the hospital in Fajardo on the main island as the hub for the network that would cover Vieques. A point which did not go unnoticed by the local community members in attendance who took the opportunity to voice concerns and criticism over the potential plans presented. One of the potential problems vocalized by the community present was the issue of communications. Vieques’s own emergency services have been struggling to initialize a communications tower in the center of the island for the past 15 years due to state-level red tape. The idea of communicating with a network of hospitals on the mainland seemed far fetched to most given the current state of funding and attention for better equipment. Many also worried that the proposal might even slow down and convolute communications that are already arduous. Many members were afraid that the presentation was more of the same empty promises they had received prior to and after Maria from federal and state agencies. In response to these concerns and others, Hector invited community members to become involved with the planning process, but whether this invitation fell on deaf ears remains to be seen. The Viequense have suffered a long history of neglect from public planning officials who often leave them out of such coordination and planning efforts.

On a final note, Hector touched on the need for rehearsing and planning out these networked systems prior to an actual disaster. Currently, the plan is to have drills with 68 hospitals currently participating in the process across Puerto Rico. It was incredibly valuable for us to see the engagement between government agency officials working to create solutions, and the people addressed in those solutions. In a very real way, these conversations are a petri dish for the functionality of budding solutions, and the public response to them in the early stages can unveil a lot of useful feedback. This is something we can all keep in mind as we work on our own research questions moving forward.

Genmoji - Solar Co-op Initiator

by Sami Kinnunen

During one of the breaks between the Vieques Solar Energy Transitions Workshop I talked to Francisco Laboy, the Chief Strategy Officer at Genmoji a company that help to install, maintain and train communities about the use of renewable energy microgrids across Puerto Rico. After talking with him for more than an hour, I learned that Genmoji’s has been working to create these energy independent communities all across Puerto Rico through the use of solar panels, small wind turbines and passive water collection systems.

These systems are an incredibly useful technology that allows for more self-reliance however, just installing the materials is not enough. It has been shown time and time again that without engagement by the community and local understanding of how they work these systems quickly fall into despair and disrepair.

That is what really excites me about Genmoji’s approach. Every time they install a system they won’t present the knowledge to a single person but require that more community members are there so that the information isn’t bottlenecked through a single source. Genmoji is working to ensure that the systems are easy to understand, to some degree fixable at a local level, there is technical expertise in the community and there is access to real communication.

Genmoji has been investing in a training program specifically for women where they hire them for three months to become certified so that they can maintain their own community. This process not only allows communities to operate independently but also empowers women and opens up doors to more job opportunities in the future. I truly enjoyed talking to Francisco about his plans for Puerto Rican renewable energies and hope that other renewable energy companies converge to this business model.

HiveCube Presentation at the Community Workshop on Solar Recovery in Vieques

by Kimberly Colgan

HiveCube’s mission is to create safe, affordable housing in Puerto Rico. In their presentation, HiveCube said that there are 11 million unused shipping containers, and in the interest of environmental sustainability, they are using these containers in their designs. Vieques is an island about 8 miles off of the eastern coast of mainland Puerto Rico. With no direct energy generation on the island, unpredictable ferries, and limited raw materials, manufacturing and construction projects on the island are often expensive. By pre-fabricating homes, many of these costs and logistical issues can be avoided.

When Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, Vieques, like much of the rest of Puerto Rico, was cut off from water, electricity, cellular service, and the internet. But unlike the mainland, there are no direct water treatment or power generation stations on the island. Vieques was on its own for over a week without any help from the Puerto Rican government. The need for electricity generation separate from the centralized grid became apparent, as did the need for disaster response headquarters to coordinate relief efforts.

To address these needs, HiveCube has designed an early stage prototype of a disaster response station for Footprint. Utilizing a shipping container, a 15 kilowatt PV solar system, racking systems from BoxPower, and lithium ferro phosphate (LFP) batteries from Simpliphi, the system can house refrigerators to store medications and a business center, and can also provide shelter. This design generates electricity at a cost of about 20-25 cents per kilowatt-hour, achieving price parity with PREPA generation costs. This is significantly lower than most other off-grid solar units, which cost about 40 cents per kilowatt hour. Based off of the designs, Footprint gave an unofficial estimate for the cost of the unit as $60,000-80,000.

The prototype was received in different ways in the workshop. Community members pointed out that these systems or houses are not financially accessible for most people who live in Vieques due to high capital costs of the Simpliphi batteries. On the other hand, Héctor García from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, seemed very excited about the design presented by HiveCube for use as a disaster response headquarters.

Jacob reiterated the importance of engaging the community in the design process to ensure that their needs are met, and to increase support for the project. Our UMN team created design iterations during their presentation, some of which are featured below.

Design Iterations from Gabriel Chan (left), Krizia Medero Padilla (middle), and Garrett Burnham (right)

Design Iterations from Gabriel Chan (left), Krizia Medero Padilla (middle), and Garrett Burnham (right)

Vieques No Longer Living on Generators, but Still in Need of Energy Independence

by Elizabeth Arnold

A generator at the Vieques ferry terminal

A generator at the Vieques ferry terminal

Prior to hurricane Maria the island of Vieques, population of roughly 9,000, relied on a 38-kilovolt underwater electrical cable running from the mainland of Puerto Rico to supply power to the small island (isla nena). For a week after hurricane Maria hit, Vieques was without power, communication or transportation on and off the island. (It was about two and a half months after the hurricane before the island had regularly scheduled ferry service to the mainland). Once communication and transportation became possible, The Army Corps of Engineers supplied two 3.3 MW diesel generators to Vieques. FEMA brought additional generators and diesel fuel. How numerous and how functional the generators were fluctuated throughout the roughly 465 days before the power connection returned to Vieques. Viequenses (people of Vieques) regained power transmission from the big island of Puerto Rico just about three weeks ago.

Much of the public was not informed about what exactly happened to take out power between the main island and Vieques. News said that the underground cable between the big island of Puerto Rico and Vieques was damaged or broken and service was estimated to be restored in two to four years. However, the line itself was never broken, just the connections and towers on either end of the underwater line. After fifteen months of living off of generators Vieques is back on PREPA’s powerline, just in time for PREPA to continue charging residents for power, because the government of Puerto Rico just passed a law on Wednesday that would have prevented PREPA from charging for energy produced by generators they do not own.

a large generator outside of a school in the plaza of isabel II

a large generator outside of a school in the plaza of isabel II

In Vieques a number of the residents I spoke to told horror stories of being charged by PREPA for power they did not consume. When they confronted PREPA with pictures of their meter readings, PREPA responded by requiring them to go through a dispute process that was so time consuming, lengthy and convoluted that people found it impossible to win. How each person I spoke with chose to respond was different. Some were cutting their power service with PREPA, figuring out living off grid. Others were resigned to paying the bill anyway to maintain service. Others were continuing to fight by refusing to pay more than their meter reading and submitting a monthly letter explaining why. There is obviously a strong need for an electricity-focused consumer advocate organization in Puerto Rico similar to the Citizen Utility Board here in Minnesota..

PREPA’s response to what went wrong in Vieques has been fractured. The utility has had four CEOs since hurricane Maria hit the island. Current PREPA CEO, José Ortiz has signed a memorandum of understanding with New York Power Authority (NYPA) to provide technical assistance to PREPA in developing microgrids for the islands of Vieques and Culebra. The project is estimated to cost $300 million dollars. No one we spoke to on Vieques had any idea if and when such a project would be undertaken.

Some private sector support for sustainable reliable energy arrived to Vieques (and the smaller neighboring island of Culebra) when Tesla deployed six solar-panel-and-battery projects to power a sanitary sewer treatment plant, Arcadia water pump station, an elderly community, the Boys and Girls Club of Vieques, and the hospital. Tesla funded the equipment and install of these systems and, after it was up and running, found buyers to purchase the systems. A buyer was not found for the hospital system so that solar system was subsequently removed. The old hospital building is now closed up due to black mold and plans to repair it are stalled until federal funds are designated. Meanwhile the hospital is operating in a much smaller nearby building and has a diesel generator, which has had negative impacts on Vieques. The hospital no longer has the room for birthing beds, so women must go to the large island if they want to labor in a hospital.  

tesla solar panels on the roof of the hospital in vieques, now closed due to black mold

tesla solar panels on the roof of the hospital in vieques, now closed due to black mold

the temporary hospital in vieques, powered by a diesel generator

the temporary hospital in vieques, powered by a diesel generator

We were able to visit a couple other privately funded solar installations in Vieques on the roofs of the Fire Department (grant funded) and on The Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, which was funded by Resilient Power Puerto Rico. Dozens of households have installed solar on their own dime. Given the cost of electricity and the vulnerability of power transmission from the big island, Vieques and Culebra are prime candidates for solar-powered microgrids.

solar panels installed on a fire station

solar panels installed on a fire station

a tesLa powerwall now stores power for the fire station

a tesLa powerwall now stores power for the fire station

The Intersection of Renewable Energy and Transitional Housing: A Day with Ponce Neighborhood Housing Services

by Carlie Derouin

After a goodbye to Marla and Cecilio and the house that has been our home base for the last nine days, the group headed to Ponce to spend the day with Elizabeth Colon Riviera at Ponce Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS). Elizabeth, who worked for Ponce NHS during her service in AmeriCorps several years ago, is currently the Executive Director.

The day began with a presentation by Elizabeth to put the work Ponce NHS is doing to serve the community into context. In line with what we have been hearing from other community leaders and energy experts, Elizabeth’s presentation explained how Hurricane Maria demonstrated to many people that Puerto Rico had existing social issues that made communities more vulnerable to disaster. Ponce NHS has been working to address one of these social issues: access to affordable housing. A staff of currently nine individuals, they offer an incredible portfolio of services to support the community.

In the last year, Ponce NHS served 2,000 people, across 50 communities. They have expanded their services throughout the years as they continued to recognize the needs of Ponce not being met by other services. They provide a variety of support in four areas: housing acquisition, loans, financial literacy, and community development.

The Global convergence lab workshop with Ponce nhs

The Global convergence lab workshop with Ponce nhs

Housing Acquisition

To address homelessness in Puerto Rico, Ponce NHS now has a housing acquisition, conservation, mitigation, and preservation program. This program encompasses the entire process of homeownership, from early housing counseling to post-home ownership support. As Ponce NHS is one of only seven agencies certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide housing counseling in Puerto Rico, it also provides housing counseling services to communities outside of Ponce to help the island.

Loans

Ponce NHS is certified by the National Mortgage Lending Services (NMLS) to give mortgage loans. When the organization has the capital, they are able to provide affordable loan options to families.

Financial Literacy

These programs help individuals with financial planning. This currently includes educational programs offered to youth (often seniors in high school) to talk about preventing debt through responsible financial planning.

Community Development

They have a variety of programs designed around empowering individuals in the communities of Ponce. Additionally, Ponce NHS works as a liaison to help connect communities with other organizations when needed.

How does this apply to our course and energy transition?

One of the next initiatives Ponce NHS is undertaking is transitional housing. Puerto Rico lacks sufficient transitional housing to support homeless individuals in the transition to home ownership in Puerto Rico. As transitional housing spaces are an important resource to support families who fall between not needing an emergency shelter but are still not yet able to purchase a home, Ponce NHS hopes the initiative can help more families move towards home ownership. Their vision is focused on providing transitional housing that is:

  • Practical yet covers necessities

  • Comfortable

  • Safe

  • Located in a secure environment

  • Structured to provide additional services (such as housing counseling)

  • Powered with renewable energy sources

The afternoon of our day with Ponce NHS consisted of workshopping the transitional housing initiative at three different scales: organizational, community, and individual housing structure. The workshop was another opportunity for our class to think about how energy transition will directly impact individuals and work being done in Puerto Rican communities. Discussions from the workshop included ways transitional housing units can be organized to facilitate the building of community relationships as well as how transitional houses powered by renewable energy can aid in educating communities about their energy use and solar energy.

Images from group workshop. Group designs considered different organization models of transitional housing units to promote community space.

Images from group workshop. Group designs considered different organization models of transitional housing units to promote community space.

As we have learned from other presentations this week, education is an important part of any proposed energy transition in Puerto Rico. Through different contexts and perspectives from community leaders and energy experts, it is a recurring theme: energy transition for Puerto Rico is not just a technical problem but a socio-technical problem. In the workshop, our group thought about how community solar could be structured in a transitional housing community and how designs could incorporate incentives to decrease energy use or educate individuals about their energy use.

In addition, this day of the trip was an opportunity to consider how organizations in Puerto Rico can share knowledge to build resilience across separate communities. We have had the opportunity to learn over the two week period from a number of individuals doing excellent work to support and rebuild communities and Puerto Rico as a whole moving forward. Ponce NHS is just one example of a community-based organization with expertise (in Puerto Rico’s housing situation in their case) also looking to incorporate renewable energy in Puerto Rico’s future. RISE, our course leaders, and course participants, are also considering the university role within these contexts. How can universities be a partner in this work and leverage connections to help meet the needs of organizations and communities doing inspirational work on the ground? It’s important work, helping to match these needs while recognizing and utilizing the wealth of community knowledge that already exists.

The class at Ponce NHS with Elizabeth Colon Rivera

The class at Ponce NHS with Elizabeth Colon Rivera

Resources

Ponce Neighborhood Services: https://www.umnconvergencepuertorico.org/about-rise/

Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College’s Report: “The Housing Crisis in Puerto Rico and the Impact of Hurricane Maria” https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/data_briefs/HousingPuertoRico.pdf

Casa Pueblo

by Krizia Medero Padilla and Garrett Burnham

Casa Pueblo Home in Adjuntas - By Garrett Burnham

Casa Pueblo Home in Adjuntas - By Garrett Burnham

“¿Qué podemos hacer?” (What can we do?) has been leading Casa Pueblo’s movements since its founding in 1980. Founded by Alexis Massol González and Mrs. Tinti Deyá Díaz, Casa Pueblo was born in the Puerto Rican town of Adjuntas to oppose the government's plans of open-pit mining of silver, gold, and copper. Today, Casa Pueblo is an example of a successful grassroots organization taking on a wide variety of challenges that affect Adjuntas with a broader goal of spreading their beliefs and practices to the greater Puerto Rican community and beyond.

Their story begins with their efforts to oppose government-sanctioned mining in their backyard, an operation that would threaten the health of Adjuntas citizens and those of the surrounding municipalities. The deposits of silver, gold, and copper were located in the towns of Utuado, Lares, and Jayuya all in the central mountain range of the island. This is a critical area for the island as the rivers that supply water to all of the San Juan metropolitan area run through it. Casa Pueblo did its research and realized that the government’s project would create an ecological disaster on the island. They decided to inform the town’s people to get them involved in a protest at the town’s plaza. Only one person showed up. The community perceived them as communists, terrorists, and “machateros” (revolutionaries) and were seemingly scared of them. What did Casa Pueblo have to do in order to get the country to defend their land? The founding team saw culture as an opportunity to get the town involved. Instead of having people come to hear a lecture, a concert was to be held in the town plaza. Reformed around folk art and music, the events drew more and more people and continued to educate Adjuntas citizens on the importance of preserving the environment. Different sectors of the community became involved, including 800 high school students who organized themselves to spell out “No Minas” (No Mines) when seen from an aerial view. The government had no choice but to shut down the mines project. In the same town plaza which once hosted a protest with one attendee, 10,000 people rejoiced in celebration.

Map of municipalities where mining was proposed - By Garrett Burnham


Map of municipalities where mining was proposed - By Garrett Burnham

Now that Casa Pueblo had successfully protected this land, they decided to turn it into a forest. The initiative began with a desire to turn the proposed mining site into a nature reserve. They made the forest into a school combining education and ecology; as said by Alexis Gonzaález: “We transformed a school into a forest and a forest into a school where mother nature is the teacher and the forest is the classroom.” After achieving this, they asked themselves: “What do we do now?”, which led to Casa Pueblo finding 10 other forests to preserve. With a big-picture vision for Puerto Rico’s future, they created a model forest for all of Puerto Rico. Projects like a music school and production of their own coffee for sales followed. Then the government came up with a new proposal.

High school protest to mining proposal - From Casa Pueblo

High school protest to mining proposal - From Casa Pueblo

In 2010, Casa Pueblo had to oppose the government yet again to protect their natural resources. The government wanted to install a liquid natural gas pipeline that would cross the island from south to north in order to reach the metropolitan area. Casa Pueblo voiced their protest at the gates of the White House. Meanwhile in Adjuntas’ plaza, the town was preparing for a march. Where 10,000 stood last time, 30,000 marched in opposition to the pipeline. The community’s voice was once again heard and the government shut down their pipeline project. Casa Pueblo now had everyone’s attention and since they had already been working with renewable energy this was their opportunity to continue expanding their work.

Casa Pueblo was uniquely positioned to respond to the many issues that arose after Hurricane Maria in 2017 because of its reputation as a solid community organizer. Part of this response came in the form of a new renewable energy initiative for Adjuntas. Prior to Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo was running almost entirely off of solar power, so it became a natural solar oasis for the municipality when it lost power. With power, they were able to provide valuable services to the area, including the refrigeration of vital medications for community members and the operation of a local radio station. Casa Pueblo decided to take this assistance one step further however and asked relief organizations to provide 14,000 solar-powered lanterns, portable dialysis machines, and micro-fridges to distribute to the citizens. After the initial disaster response, a new model of energy distribution at the community level was sparked by Casa Pueblo’s solar system that created an insurrection to change the local energy landscape. With their ground-up approach to change in mind, Casa Pueblo worked with residents to install solar panels on 35 local homes, five remote grocery stores, two hardware stores, a restaurant, and a barbershop. True to form, Casa Pueblo continued this trend from the grassroots community level on up to the regional level. They are working to help install solar panels throughout the center of the island and have set their sights on powering 50% of Puerto Rico with solar power. In order to push this new initiative to its fullest extent, a new protest is in the works, and with even more people than before expected. Their endless fervor for community betterment is truly inspiring.

Listening to Alexis tell the story of Casa Pueblo can lead one to think that their journey has been a relatively straightforward, easy path. However, Casa Pueblo hasn’t grown to its current status within the community without facing adversity. In the early days of the organization's efforts against mining, members faced discrimination from officials in the community who wanted to quell their efforts. As stated before, they were labeled communists, terrorists, and revolutionaries. This was an attempt to ostracize the members of the organization from the greater community to isolate them and their ideals. They faced further obstruction from the local police force who would go door to door and personally intimidate the musicians and dancers set to perform at the protest concerts. As a result, organizing the event and rehearsing for it became much more difficult.

Despite this adversity, Casa Pueblo has grown into a powerful force within the Adjuntas municipality and has even extended its influence into the surrounding countryside. Their powerful message of self-actualization and love for communities is an important one for many struggling to maintain hope in a post-Maria landscape. To be sure, the people of Puerto Rico are hopeful and strong, but having a role model to follow in the form of Casa Pueblo is a welcome ally in the ongoing fight.

Members of the UMN Global Convergence Lab with Casa Pueblo’s founder, Alexis Massol González

Members of the UMN Global Convergence Lab with Casa Pueblo’s founder, Alexis Massol González

School Retrofits for the Superhero Foundation

By Hilyarit Santiago-Robles

On Friday, January 11th, we had the opportunity to meet with the director of the Superhero Foundation in Puerto Rico. The director, Soammy Hernández Acevedo and her son Alfredo Ríos, informed us about the situation of the Department of Education and its decision to shutter a large amount of schools in the island. We also discussed the Foundation’s most recent project in the city of Aguadilla to retrofit a closed school to provide therapy for students with developmental disabilities.

 
Closed school in the Playuela sector, Aguadilla

Closed school in the Playuela sector, Aguadilla

 

The Superhero Foundation in Puerto Rico is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing free services to children with special needs such as autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other deficiencies in development. Puerto Rico has over 100,000 children with special needs, but only a fraction receive services from the government. The Superhero Foundation aims to provide services to those who have been denied services by the government. Some of the services offered include aquatic therapy, evaluation and visual therapy, orthodontist, language speech therapies, psychological, educational dysphagia, Integrated Listening System, reading, and more.

One of the sectors most affected by Puerto Rico’s financial crisis has been public education. Between 2007 and 2016, 230 schools in Puerto Rico were closed, an acceleration of a decades-long trend. Low enrollment of students continues to be the main cause of these closures. The number of schools closed across Puerto Rico now surpasses 500 as the island has lost 157,000 students. On top of Puerto Rico’s financial situation, exacerbated by the island’s recession in 2006, other factors affecting school closure include low birth rate on the island and the increase in out-migration (especially of women at reproductive ages)  The number of closed schools across Puerto Rico further increased due to poor forecasting. Between the years 2000 to 2010, it was thought that Puerto Rico’s population would increase and more schools were built, but in reality the population declined.

The closure of schools affects communities. In the vast majority of cases, schools  are a cultural and economic hub in their communities. When schools close, they get vandalized and the value of the properties around them decrease and may even create a security problem.

The roof of the Superhero Foundation’s recently granted school that may one day host a solar array

The roof of the Superhero Foundation’s recently granted school that may one day host a solar array

Because of the vast school closures, on May 9, 2017, Executive Order 032 was established to evaluate the transfer of closed school buildings to municipalities and organizations that promote community and economic development on the island. Some ways being considered for closed schools under consideration are as temporary emergency housing, homeless shelters, rescue centers, therapy workshops, place of tutoring, places of refuge for victims of abuse, and as a hub for the development of community microenterprises. Although the closing of  schools continues to be a crisis, they also represent an opportunity. There has been an increase in the cost of labor in Puerto Rico by 40%, and simultaneously, the cost of materials are also increasing, making building from scratch an increasingly difficult prospect and repurposing existing buildings more promising.

During our visit with the Superhero Foundation, we visited a closed school in the Playuela sector of Aguadilla that was recently signed over to the Foundation. This school is one of the many that the government closed on the island. The Foundation also received an acre of land in front of the school. The Foundation envisions is  the school being transformed into classrooms, therapeutic pools, gardening spaces, and accessible parks for children born with special needs from 4 months to adulthood.

On our walk through the school we saw that it has great potential for providing additional services. In times of need, the community of Playuela could benefit from these resources. For example, below the school, there are water channels that flow into a nearby beach that also has a well, to which this community had access to water after being hit by Hurricane María. Another possibility would be the installation of solar panels on the school’s flat roof. These two micro-infrastructure systems could transform the  school into an oasis, making it a hub for resilience available not only to the people who receive the school's services, but to the neighboring community as well.

Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria provides new opportunities to provide critical services to communities. In our visit with the Superhero Foundation, we saw how closed schools can be repurposed to serve children with disabilities while simultaneously making  communities more resilient. Integrating renewable energy further aligns projects like this to create local infrastructure for community resilience. During our visit, I saw connections with other parts of our trip. One example of a project that may be key in these interventions is the Community Solar Energy Initiative from Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR) which they have built in many parts of the island. These projects provide services to communities throughout the Islands including technical and financial assistance. This effort is made possible by direct donations of solar energy systems in communities most impacted by Hurricane Maria.

The UMN Global Convergence Lab outside of the Aguadilla school

The UMN Global Convergence Lab outside of the Aguadilla school

The Microgrid Laboratory at UPRM's Sustainable Energy Center

by Kristy Dwello, Kimberly Colgan, Gabriel Chan

We spent Friday morning at the Microgrid Laboratory in the Sustainable Energy Center at the University of Puerto Rico - Mayagüez (UPRM). Juan Felipe Patarroyo Montenegro, UPRM  PhD student in electrical engineering, and Marcel Castro-Sitiriche, UPRM electrical engineering professor,  gave our group presentations on microgrids and energy systems in Puerto Rico. According to the Department of Energy, a microgrid is ‘‘a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid.” As described in more detail in a previous blog post, the energy system in Puerto Rico is currently characterized by fossil fuel power generation systems and a centralized grid. Microgrids would provide an alternative to this system with more decentralized control and resilience.

As a relatively high consumer of electricity in the Caribbean with an electric grid that has painfully been revealed as more vulnerable to disruptions than previously considered , Puerto Rico could benefit from the implementation of microgrids. With a focus on solar energy, microgrids could increase the resilience of Puerto Rico’s grid by allowing communities to operate their own disconnected energy systems and function independently in the case of system failure. This could especially be beneficial in light of the extended outages after large-scale system disruptions, such as those that followed Hurricane Maria. The use of solar energy over diesel fuel or natural gas in a microgrid could also provide environmental benefits to local communities, particularly where a renewable-powered microgrid replaces a diesel-powered alternative.

Juan Felipe Patarroyo Montenegro is a PhD student in Electrical Engineering from Columbia. From him, we learned about what the UPRM Microgrid Labdoes, who they partner with, and where they get their funding. The Microgrid Laboratory uses simulations of weather and power generation in conjunction with real electrical system hardware to test the productivity of microgrid systems and how they perform under varying conditions. Collaborating with the University of Alaska, University of Southern Florida, the Department of Energy, Polytechnic University of Catalonia, Aalborg University, and more, the lab’s work is truly global.  The UPRM Microgrid Lab is also the first and only research group focusing on microgrids in Puerto Rico,  which is significant given the policy attention microgrids have received following Maria. A grant from the National Science Foundation is providing funding for more equipment and computing power, that will allow the lab to simulate all of Puerto Rico in their future research.

We learned that there is a lot of variability in solar power generation that affects possible microgrid performance. Irradiance, temperature, and cloud cover all impact solar energy output, and with a smaller number of generation sources, microgrids must account for this variability with sufficient energy storage in order to provide reliable service. To study these issues with real performance inputs and smart grid infrastructure, the Microgrid Laboratory hopes to connect the Lab’s microgrid simulation equipment and metering systems to the OASIS solar house on campus.

OASIS Solar House, UPRM

OASIS Solar House, UPRM

University students, like most consumers, are often unaware of their energy footprint. Because of this, the Sustainable Energy Center, the parent organization of the Microgrid Lab, plans to incorporate education of students and the greater community into their work. Juan believes that “you cannot be selfish with your research”, and because of this hopes to also use the Lab as a theater to show different energy scenarios to the public and teach people how to manage energy issues.

After our conversation with Juan, we were joined by Marcel Castro-Sitiriche, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico - Mayagüez in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. Marcel shared with us the context and history of the greater energy system in Puerto Rico. He highlighted the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), currently in development, which establishes a pathway for the development of an electric power system and the improvement of the efficiency, reliability, affordability, and transparency of the system. The first IRP was filed by Puerto Rico Energy Power Authority (PREPA)  in 2015, and was rejected by the Puerto Rico Energy Commission because it did not include renewables, demand-response planning, nor energy efficiency in a meaningful capacity. The most recent draft of Puerto Rico’s IRP includes solar, but most is utility-scale solar installations, while comparatively, much less is generated by customer-owned, distributed solar sources.  

Kristy and Kimberly in the Microgrid Laboratory, UPRM

Kristy and Kimberly in the Microgrid Laboratory, UPRM

Marcel described the complex web of players in the IRP process that are creating potential conflicts of interest, particularly in envisioning a desired infrastructure scale (e.g more centralized or more decentralized) and mix of energy sources in the future Puerto Rican electricity grid.  Siemens led the preparation of the first IRP in 2015, which prioritized natural gas over renewables. Their most recent IRP proposes solar generation, but at the utility scale, and very little customer-owned generation. There is still a lot of work to be done to move the IRP into implementation. From our discussions in Puerto Rico, we were left with a lot of questions about how stakeholders are engaging in the IRP process and how PREPA’s plans for managing the energy system are accounting for the uncertainty in their privatization requirements. As we ended our morning in the UPRM Electrical Engineering Department, we felt that the tension between two visions of Puerto Rico’s energy system after Maria is just as strong as ever: will the system move to one that is more bottom-up, small-scale, and distributed with locally controlled microgrids that support system resilience? Or will the system be driven by top-down processes that drive outside capital toward large-scale, more easily financed, and perhaps more affordable energy? Can Puerto Rico’s communities afford to do the difficult work of community organization that  takes time, effort, and emotional labor before the next hurricane hits? Or is the more responsive strategy to build back an electricity system that connects as many people as quickly as possible and then work on energy transition only once the grid is hardened?

Intercultural Development Inventory

by Carlie Derouin

Previous to coming to Puerto Rico, everyone in our group took the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment. The IDI is an important tool used in many industries (in both the private and public sector) to think about intercultural competence and cross-cultural work. Our group used this assessment as a tool to facilitate discussions about our own cultural backgrounds and how those impact the work we are doing here in Puerto Rico.

The IDI assessment places individuals along the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC), which consists of five stages: denial, polarization, minimization, acceptance, and adaptation. The assessment has been tested for validity and reliability across cultural groups, and has also been back-translated into 13 different languages (Hammer, 2012).

Our group used the discussion of the group assessment results profile to have a stimulating conversation around each other’s cultural backgrounds and identities, the definition of culture and what it encompasses, and the effect of our own cultures on the cross-cultural work in which we engage. This conversation was part of a larger course theme on the importance of culture in energy transition solutions. In addition to the IDI, our group is keeping reflection journals on what we are experiencing and learning as we investigate how the energy system in Puerto Rico was affected by Hurricane Maria and how it is changing now. A few of the questions we generated as a group to facilitate individual reflection include:

  • What are some of your core beliefs and how have they been culturally influenced? How would you describe your worldview?

  • To whom are you accountable in this work?

  • What surprises you about what you are experiencing here? What are some things that are a source of confusion?

Including the IDI as a tool to facilitate conversations on culture was an important pedagogical strategy in the course. There is a growing body of literature in the field of international education and intercultural competence (often in the context of study-abroad programming in higher education) that shows that immersion in cross-cultural interactions does not necessarily result in increased cultural competence. Instead, these studies often indicate that guided conversations and self-reflection are essential to increasing cultural competence. Thus, the reflection journals have also been an important part of this process. For me, writing daily has provided the space needed to both synthesize the energy policies and technologies we are learning about and also reflect on my role as a graduate student engaging with locals and their work in a region that recently experienced a traumatic disaster.

References

Hammer, M. R. (2012). The intercultural development inventory: A new frontier in assessment and development of intercultural competence. In M. Vande Berg, R. M. Paige, & K. H. Lou (Eds.), Student learning abroad (pp. 115–136). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Puerto Rico’s First Electric Cooperative on the Verge of Incorporation

by Jane O’Malley and Elizabeth Arnold

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), Puerto Rico’s only electric utility, is the largest public utility in the United States. PREPA is a vertically integrated monopoly utility, which means they own and operate electric generation, transmission, and distribution without competition. What is now PREPA, began in 1926 as Utilización de las Fuentes Fluviales (Water Resources Authority). The bulk of their energy generation for the first decades of existence was hydroelectric power, but it is now dominated by imports of diesel. PREPA’s major issues are a crushing debt and lack of consumer confidence. It has been suffering from rising debt since the 2008 economic recession, and now holds debt over $9 billion. PREPA has no easy route to solving this crisis, even with planned rate hikes. Electricity prices in Puerto Rico are already the highest in the U.S., averaging over 22 cents/kWh for residential, commercial and industrial customers. Customer dissatisfaction with PREPA has also grown following Hurricane Maria as many Puerto Rican’s have blamed PREPA for the length of the blackout following the hurricane. Since PREPA is a monopoly, customers are unable to opt-out in search of more reliable service and better prices. The government is seeking to solve these issues through privatization. In this context, we talked with C.P. Smith, one Puerto Rican seeking to transform the organizational structure of electricity services in his community through the formation of what would become Puerto Rico’s first electric cooperative (co-op).

Smith, President of Unidos por Utuado and Ineabelle Medina, VP

Smith, President of Unidos por Utuado and Ineabelle Medina, VP

Hurricane Maria not only revealed the physical vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s grid to high intensity storms but also PREPA’s inability to execute an emergency response plan and quickly restore power back to Puerto Rican citizens. Governor Rosselló and PREPA have looked toward privatization, or the transfer of assets from public to private entities, as a way to bring the organization out of debt, reduce inefficiencies, and develop a clear strategic vision. Rosselló signed a bill in June of last year, known as Act 120, the Act for the Transformation of the Puerto Rico Electrical System (No. 120-2018), which set the legal framework for privatization of PREPA’s energy generation assets. [Note: Act 120 specifies that transmission and distribution contracts cannot be granted to entities that also hold a contract for energy generation. Transmission and distribution contracts are subject to the Public-Private Partnership Act (PPP), and just yesterday it was announced that a PPP agreement was reached to manage distribution.]

Privatization is seen as a way to manage PREPA’s debt and resolve perceived issues with mismanagement. However, privatization does not necessarily promise cheaper electricity prices and could even increase the cost of electricity to consumers. To generate stable revenue and sustain infrastructure investments, private companies are able to increase rates more frequently than their public counterparts might be able to -- particularly if a public utility is held to greater account to their tax-paying customer base (CityLab, 2015). Whether or not privatization of all of PREPA’s generation assets will be good for Puerto Ricans is up for debate; but in our conversations in Puerto Rico, this debate is beginning to feel moot. PREPA’s aging generation systems and its reliance on imported diesel fuel have made it exceedingly difficult for PREPA to find buyers for its assets, particularly its older fossil fuel generators.

Electric co-ops offer a different structure for procuring and purchasing electricity from PREPA’s model. Co-ops constitute a “bottom-up” approach to energy services. Under a cooperative model, participating members act as shareholders to both own and manage their energy resources. Electric rates are determined by a board of directors elected through a democratic process. Energy generation services may also be more localized, benefiting from minimized line losses due to generation assets located within the communities they serve. Electric co-ops are non-profits and thereby allow for excess revenue to be reinvested in electric infrastructure and local community project financing.

Dos Bocas Hydroelectric Plant

Dos Bocas Hydroelectric Plant

Energy cooperatives represent a fundamentally different way of organizing the electric system, in that benefits are kept within the community. The concept of electric cooperatives proliferated in the U.S. during the New Deal in the 1930s-40s as a way to service rural areas that were under-serviced by investor-owned utilities that couldn’t make a profit on building lines to serve more remote areas. The electric cooperative model is now spreading to Puerto Rico, with some similarities but some significant differences. Senate Bill 984, signed by Rosselló late last year, has come at a timely moment. It allows for communities and businesses to establish electric cooperatives for the first time. Similar to rural America in the 1930s, the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico are not being effectively served by the status quo utility structure -- and so thinking about new ways of organizing the utility’s “natural monopoly” to put more control at the local level is a priority for mountain communities.

Examining the debris in the dos bocas RESERVOIR

Examining the debris in the dos bocas RESERVOIR

Co-ops are a way for the local community to have more control over where and how their electricity is generated, whether that be hydroelectric or solar. Puerto Rico has no fossil fuel energy reserves and its economy still relies heavily on imported fuel. However, the island has huge capacity for renewable energy generation, especially solar. Approximately half of Puerto Rico’s energy comes from petroleum; the remaining makeup comes from natural gas and coal, with only roughly 2% attributed to renewable energy (EIA). Solar and wind energy make up the majority of renewable resources, although hydroelectric generation assets have significant underutilized capacity. The Dos Bocas hydroelectric plant, located in Utuado, has 43 MW of power capacity, although only 6 MW of it is used. A 2001 USGS report noted that the system’s water storage capacity has been cut by over half -- decreasing from 37.5 to 18 million cubic meters of capacity due to sediment infilling. Additional buildup of silt and debris in water delivery lines, some of which was caused by Maria, have limited all generators from operating optimally, and PREPA has taken no steps to remediate the issue.

We toured the Dos Bocas plant along with C.P. Smith, a retired military officer who has spent his life between the island and the mainland. He returned to the small city of Utuado, the place where his mother was born and buried, in early 2017. Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Smith committed to serving the citizens of the mountainous city. After helping with rapid-response recovery needs, he then turned to building longer-term resilience for Utuado. Smith developed the non-profit organization, Unidos por Utuado (UPU), to provide the community with basic goods and services in the immediate aftermath of the storm, such as potable water, solar lights and clean clothing. Unidos por Utuado has since partnered with academic institutions such as Harvard, Cornell and Penn State and the private sector through the GE Social Impacts program. Sandia National Laboratory and others have helped UPU broaden its technical capacity and funding streams. UPU is also on the verge of incorporating a community energy co-op, known as La Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de La Montaña (Hydroelectic Co-op of the Mountain), to provide long-term energy services to Utuado and neighboring towns. The cooperative seeks to provide the rural community with more democratic control and greater access to affordable, clean energy sources, first from the Dos Bocas dam and with distributed solar generation.

La Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de La Montaña is just one of a few alternatives to large utility  ownership being considered in Puerto Rico’s mountain communities, where interest in more local control is high because of the desire to produce energy closer to home and  to prevent future service disruptions. Toro Negro in the mountain community of Ciales is the first community solar project in Puerto Rico, serving 28 families. The mountain town of Villalba is in the process of municipalizing their energy system, which means they would own energy generation and supply themselves and neighboring towns with more reliable electricity service. We look forward to seeing how the new energy co-op progresses in Utuado. With nearly fifty electric co-ops in the state of Minnesota, there is potential for future collaboration between Minnesota co-ops and La Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de La Montaña.

Utuado dam traffic controller

Utuado dam traffic controller

Group in discussion with C.P. Smith

Group in discussion with C.P. Smith

Angel Eschevarria on Assessing Post-Maria Energy Access

by Kristy Dellwo

Pictured: Jane O’Malley and Angel Echevarria

Pictured: Jane O’Malley and Angel Echevarria

The third presentation from the Arizona State University student group was led by Angel Echevarria who focused his research on an analysis of the energy system reconstruction in Puerto Rico post Hurricane María through the lens of nighttime satellite images. His research brought to light not only the severity of the blackout that occurred on the island after the hurricane, but also the seemingly inequitable lag time many communities experienced when getting electricity back up and running in their homes. To narrow his scope, Angel focused on the Barrio (County) of Jayuya with a population of approximately 16,000 people located in central Puerto Rico. He developed three main questions: What does the energy restoration process currently look like?, what patterns can be observed in the process?, and how the human dimension of energy connects in the process?; but I was most intrigued by the second question.

Angel found that in Veguitas (a sector of Jayuya) energy restoration took much longer compared to other regions because it lies within a mountainous region and the access points are harder to reach. However, he indicated that there was a wealthier family living in that region that received electricity sooner than others in the same area, possibly showing a correlation between wealth and power restoration time. This finding highlighted an interesting question about equity and made me wonder whether or not other rural regions of the island experience similar situations where wealthier households might have been given priority in the process, or if those households had connections and were able to pay someone to get their power back up faster than others in the same neighborhood.

Overall, Angel’s research was able to raise and rationalize one of the most pressing issues Puerto Rico experienced in terms of energy restoration after Hurricane Maria. In addition, he provided a model for data collection that could potentially help build more resilient solutions to the energy system on the island to better reach all households equitably.

Victor Ruiz-Aveilés on Access to Water after Maria

by Sami Kinnunen

Victor Ruiz-Aveilés with Megan Voorhees

Victor Ruiz-Aveilés with Megan Voorhees

The second presentation from the Arizona State University student group was led by Victor Ruiz-Aveilés who gave a presentation on the effects of Hurricane Maria on the potable groundwater system in Puerto Rico. Victor touched on many issues including the high level of coliform bacteria in river water, the relatively high daily use of water for the entire country but mainly focused his time on the viability of community water systems to reduce the vulnerability of the Puerto Rican rural populace. This use of community groundwater wells greatly interested me as the sustainability of groundwater pumping systems is also the focus of my research project.

The communities that were connected to the centralized water system provided by Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewer Authority (PRASA) were without water after Hurricane Maria due to the loss of electricity. Even after generators were being used to run the water treatment plants and pump water, the focus was directed towards providing water for urban centers and the rural communities were largely ignored. These rural communities, often situated in the central mountain range, were without access to potable water for seven to ten months after the storm. The idea was to look at rural communities with groundwater wells that were separate from the main utility to analyze the speed at which communities regained access to potable water. These systems are very attractive as having a localized pumping and water reservoir uses much less energy than having the centralized system pump water all the way from sea level into the mountains. In an already energy stresses system, having the ability to operate off grid would be a huge boon for these local communities.

Victor focused his research on the Aguada municipality on the northwest side of the island. In Aguada there are currently 6 groundwater systems that serve 7% of that population. However, these wells are operated at a much lower level then they are built for as they only need to serve the needs of their specific communities. If the wells were turned on to their maximum level these 6 wells have the capability to supply 25% of the entire Aguanda municipality with water. However, the water would still need to be delivered to the rest of the communities in the area even if it were extracted. I asked if a sustainability study had been completed to see what the long term water levels would look like if the pumping rates were increased that much and he replied that he is exploring that section of the research currently. These groundwater wells can and will be a sustainable long term solution to rural communities water issues but first we need to determine what amount of water can steadily be removed without draining the local aquifers.

There are many aspects of groundwater that still need to be questioned and answered about the amount of wells needed to effectively supply Aguada but, thus far, community operated groundwater wells are an attractive choice for community resilience in the face of another power outage. Needless to say we had a lot to talk about once he finished his talk.

 
Victor Ruiz-Aveilés speaking to the group about his analysis of community water systems

Victor Ruiz-Aveilés speaking to the group about his analysis of community water systems

 

Anais Roque on Investigating Existing Resilience and Sustainability in Puerto Rico

by Emma Fiala

Anais Roque, PhD Candidate at ASU, with Rajeev Atha

Anais Roque, PhD Candidate at ASU, with Rajeev Atha

After a long, but productive morning meeting, three Arizona State University students came and presented their research. They each were studying different aspects of community and inequities, but they had their own unique projects. The first presenter was Anais Roque, an environmental and social science master’s student interested in the role of social capital and resilience. She spoke candidly about her research and its implications, mainly, that networks of individuals that can form groups that are more resilient and more likely to be sustainable than others.

She examined this hypothesis by doing an in-depth community scan for the towns of Corcovada in the west and Mariana in the east. She chose these two communities because they were some of the most well-organized communities in Puerto Rico and therefore had a good model for resilience and sustainability. These communities also were some of the first communities to have clean water and electricity restored after Hurricane Maria, so investigating what exactly made these communities successful despite the island-wide devastation was the focus of her research.

Corcovada and Mariana both are highly organized and well-connected towns. They started to build relationships, utilize resources and develop community leadership in the 1960s because they wanted to make fast, but sustainable change and did not want to wait for government and policies to bring them benefits. Anais reported that these communities have the mentality that if they themselves do not act to fix a problem, the problem will not be solved. This self-starter spirit led them to investing in relationships outside of their communities. For example, Corcovada, is religiously oriented. According to the story, an engineer refused to be enlisted in the military, so he was put into a prison for four years, then exiled to Corcovada. In Corcovada, he saw the need for a water system and a church, so in exchange for constructing a new church, he used his professional skills to create their first aqueduct. For Mariana, the US Army had a base in Ceiba and the community of Mariana discovered that all the water from their rivers was supplying the base and the pressure to flow up the mountain was too high for their community to be supplied. Given this realization, the community decided to launch a campaign called “Agua Para Todos” (Water for All). This led to a town aqueduct and further sustainable projects.

The continued success of these communities are related not only in their ability to organize well, follow through with projects and engage the community, but also in their abilities to network and create an ecosystem of support. Corcovada, being more of a religious community networked with many faith-based organizations, while Mariana, a more political community networked with international organizations. Their hopes were that through networking with the outside community, a symbiotic relationship can be formed. On one side, the community can receive services and on the other side, the external groups will receive information. For example, nursing and health students from the University of Puerto Rico come to these communities to learn health skills and in return, the community has easy access to healthcare. Another example is through students visiting and interviewing, then sharing their research findings and implementing different programs alongside the community. A consistent message from the communities and from other speakers is that relationships cannot be unilateral; they must be mutually beneficial with the intent to build communities and improve conditions.

For Anais, she went into these communities and interviewed residents. In return, she hopes to create an assessment of resilience and sustainability, share her findings with the communities she entered and perhaps, develop a strategy based off of the Corcovada/Mariana models that other communities can utilize.

In the big picture, this matters because the success in these communities can be shared with other communities for building a more sustainable and resilient Puerto Rico.

Anais Roque discussing community resilience with the global convergence lab

Anais Roque discussing community resilience with the global convergence lab



Hurricane Maria and Public Health

by Emma Fiala and Carlie Derouin

After our morning with Lionel, our two groups (University of Minnesota and SUNY-Albany) resumed for a presentation by Jonathan Castillo Polanco. Jonathan is a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico-San Juan studying Public Health and Environmental Policy. He currently is also a researcher at the National Institute of Energy and Sustainability (INESI) and is assisting with energy public policies with the Puerto Rican Senate. His presentation focused on the  impacts of Hurricane Maria on public health in Puerto Rico. His presentation began with a definition of public health to ground the conversation: the organized response from a society aimed at promoting and protecting the health of a community by acting to prevent sickness, injury and disability. The fundamental purpose of public health is to reach higher levels in well-being using knowledge and existing resources. His presentation then covered several public health concerns Puerto Rico faced in the disaster: issues with hospitals, electric generators, fresh water, and food and related it back to the official definition of public health to make the case that Puerto Rico had not been taking public health seriously.

Hospitals

USS Navy Ship Comfort

USS Navy Ship Comfort

A month after Maria, only a few dozen hospitals were operational in Puerto Rico. Many were located within the capital of San Juan and some larger cities, such as Ponce and Mayaguez. Only a few were operational in the center of the island. Due to Maria, roads and bridges were destroyed, so travel to operational hospitals was impossible during the first week and extremely difficult thereafter. For example, a woman who lived in the center of the island had died and because she needed to be pronounced dead by a doctor, she was left there for a week until an ambulance was able to come to her home. Clearly, this represents a huge public health crisis. Appropriately, the mainland sent the US Navy Ship Comfort, which had around 1000 beds, 12 operating rooms, and various sub-specialties. However, the USNS Comfort was stationed outside of San Juan, while other locations, particularly within the center of the island, were left without aid. In addition to the suboptimal location of the USNS Comfort, protocol dictated use of ship for true emergencies and only after being evaluated by a hospital. This meant that patients with chronic diseases that were at the time well-managed, could not seek care for likely future emergencies. Of around 400 people that were sent to the USNS Comfort, only 10 were admitted.

Relating this back to the public health definition from the Puerto Rican government, public health is not defined as emergency care for acute conditions, but as protecting the health of a community. This leads to a few questions: Why send the USNS Comfort if it is not fully utilized and not in a location of extreme need? Why send sick patients to a hospital first when there is a ship equipped to manage their conditions? What happens to those patients who need dialysis, refrigeration of medications, or patients with other chronic conditions that require close follow up?

Electricity

Fallen power line after Maria

Fallen power line after Maria

When the hurricane hit, many transmission lines were damaged resulting in the supply and demand imbalance that caused Puerto Rico to lose power completely. It took more than a year to resupply the entire island with power and many rural inland communities suffered the most. The lack of electricity is significant as many resorted to using diesel generators for power. Some examples of the uses of electricity that may be overlooked include nebulizer treatments for asthmatics, ventilators for life support, and storage of insulin and other medications. Jonathan told stories of people who had no more gas to fuel the generators that provided electricity to ventilators, so families were forced to watch loved ones die. In addition to the negative outcomes from lack of power, there are significant negative outcomes to using diesel generators. Emissions are correlated with cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, meningitis and even low birth weights. Some people did not understand the potential dangers of generators and developed carbon monoxide poisoning. This energy poverty exacerbated health conditions, such as stress and mental illness, which is also a significant public health problem.  

Water

Lepstospirosis-causing bacteria

Lepstospirosis-causing bacteria

An island without electricity is an island without the ability to power water treatment plants that produce drinking water. When the people depleted their supply, many resorted to drinking water in the rivers. As upstream residents used the river for all hygiene as well, the water became dirty for downstream drinkers. The EPA found enterococcus, a bacteria responsible for diverticulitis, UTIs and meningitis in all the freshwater of Puerto Rico. In addition to enterococcus, leptospirosis became rampant. Leptospirosis is a disease caused by bacteria in the water and can be very serious if left untreated or improperly diagnosed. Normally, there are around five cases per year of leptospirosis, however within two months, there were 114 confirmed cases. It took Puerto Rico months to recover their water systems.

Food

Nutrition information of a container of SPAM

Nutrition information of a container of SPAM

In addition to the public health concerns relating to hospitals, electricity and water, lack of sufficient and nutritious food remained a problem for Puerto Rico long after the hurricane hit. By the WHO, food security is defined as access to permanent, sufficient and nutritious food. By this definition, 86% of Puerto Rico met that definition. Puerto Ricans ate mainly “hurricane food,” such as beans, canned meat, and other canned foods. There is significant sodium in canned foods, particularly canned meats, meaning those with sodium sensitivity were without viable options. This exacerbated patients with hypertension as one can of meat is the daily recommended limit of sodium. Hypertension is not usually an acute illness, but a chronic one, so eating a high sodium diet over a long period of time can cause kidney damage, dehydration, stroke, and more.

Workshop

To wrap up the lecture, Jonathan facilitated a quick workshop in which small groups rotated through the four public health needs: hospitals, clean water, nutritious food, and addressing pollution from electric generators. We generated a variety of ideas that could have helped prevent problems from occurs or alleviate their burden. Examples included education on drinking water and disease, policies on generator use and increased capacity of community centers as distribution hubs for food and medications. The discussion of the cascade of health issues directly related to the electrical grid failure after hurricane Maria emphasized the importance of energy systems in society and how the future of the energy system in Puerto Rico is embedded in other social concerns. In the era of climate change in which storms, such as hurricane Maria threaten the island, it is important that work being done on energy transition here take into account the vulnerability Puerto Rico faced in this disaster and ways in which Puerto Rico can be more resilient.

What ideas do you have for solving these public health issues?

Discussing Puerto Rican Energy Transition and Resilience with Prof. Orama-Exclusa

by Elizabeth Arnold

The first half of the day was especially rich for us energy geeks. Our group, along with some great SUNY-Albany students and professor, had the pleasure of a presentation and discussion with Dr. Lionel R. Orama-Exclusa, Faculty of Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez (UPRM) and Member of the Steering Committee of the National Institute of Energy and Island Sustainability (INESI). Dr. Orama presented on INESI’s work to address wicked problems involving energy and sustainability. Here are a few tidbits and takeaways from the three-hour discussion to give you a sense of what parts of the energy system were knocked offline with the fury of Hurricane Maria and what needs to be taken into consideration in a transition to a new energy paradigm where people are not left in the dark for up to a year.

 
Prof. Orama discussing puerto rico’s energy transition with the class

Prof. Orama discussing puerto rico’s energy transition with the class

 

Maria caused the second longest blackout in the world (first was in the Philippines in 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan). Puerto Ricans suffered 3 billion consumer hours of lost electric service (CHoLES) after the hurricane season.

Maria and Irma caused substantial failures across Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure:

2,478 miles of transmission and sub-transmission lines, 48 transmission centers, 31,446 miles of overhead lines, 1,723 miles of underground lines, and 293 substations failed in the hurricane season.

Energy transitions are purpose-driven social changes, not just a swapping out of one technology for another. INESI is interdisciplinary and connects experts from regions across Puerto Rico in order to address the geographic and social conditions particular to each community. Central to the energy transition envisioned by INESI, and partially underway by entities and communities with shared values, are increased equity, resilience, and sustainability in the energy system.

Equity is essential to reduce disparities in energy access and to ensure that the new system distributes power in a way that serves all Puerto Ricans well. The time it took to bring electricity back to communities in some parts of the island versus others was a dramatic difference of as much as 10 months. Some homes mere blocks away from another regained power five months apart. The trauma of living without power made evident for Puerto Ricans many of the invisible impacts of electricity on every aspect of daily life. Everything is interconnected.

Resilience needs to be ensured first at the household level in order to both increase equity and to ensure basic community resilience and electricity access. If the last 200,000 households to regain power had installed solar on their homes before Hurricane Maria, the blackout would have lasted less than half as long as it did -- 156 days as opposed to 329 days.

Sustainability is both financial and environmental. PREPA pays over $1 billion per year for fossil fuels needed for energy generation, and when oil prices were higher, it was twice that amount. Paying billions of dollars per year for fuel for power generation is not economically sustainable. The climate and health impacts of fossil fuels are not economically or environmentally sustainable.

What does it mean to “build back better?” If you have read anything about the electric grid in Puerto Rico, you know that many of the power generation facilities are in the south with transmission lines that connect them to population centers in the north. Most discussion about ‘building back better’ has focused on the transmission lines. Dr. Orama pointed out that the existing transmission lines that failed during Maria were actually built to the requirements of code which factor in 190-200 mile-per-hour wind speeds. New transmission lines would likely not exceed the current code, and therefore, they would similarly be no more likely to withstand future hurricanes. Burying the transmission lines underground would appear to be a more resilient option. However, once you consider the central mountains (Cordillera) and the cost, underground lines are no longer as attractive as distributed energy resources in as many places as they might first appear. Investing the majority of funds available in “harder” transmission systems would be extremely short-sighted.

Listening to Prof. Orama it is clear that funds for energy system improvements would be better spent on distributed generation and local distribution of that energy where populations live, which would provide communities with more resilience in the face of future hurricanes and earthquakes. PREPA has a huge opportunity for improvement through effective investments in distributed renewable generation, energy efficiency, demand response, and microgrids.

an afternoon rainbow over power lines

an afternoon rainbow over power lines

 
post author elizabeth arnold at a substation

post author elizabeth arnold at a substation

SHOUT OUT to AMPI, Inc., a non-profit improving the lives of mentally challenged adults, who hosted us in their space for the day. They have expanded their services to rebuild the community while supporting their work with mentally challenged adults.

Corcovada Community Aqueduct

by Sami Kinnunen

I had the opportunity to jump away from the University of Minnesota group and join with another group from the University at Albany SUNY. We went to visit the Corcovada Communal Aqueduct in Añasco, a prime example of community resilience as reflected in their community owned and operated aqueducts high up in Puerto Rico’s central mountain range. When we arrived, the community was working on preparations for Three Kings Day, a community wide event where Puerto Ricans celebrate the coming of the three wise men. Iris and Cesar Irizarry, the respective current and former leaders of the community stepped away from working on setting up decorations to come meet our group. They lead us down a tarmac road and past a chain link fence revealing a plot of 20 solar panels and a small building that housed solar batteries, a groundwater well, and a chlorine disinfection system. Cesar gave our group a brief history of the community’s journey towards self-reliance and sustainability.

Iris and Cesar Irizarry, leaders of corcovada Communal Aqueduct in Añasco

Iris and Cesar Irizarry, leaders of corcovada Communal Aqueduct in Añasco

In 1967, after years of having to transport potable water from other communities, Cocovada took matters into their own hands and built an aqueduct and a 23,000 gallon water storage tank owned by the community. Corcovada then organized themselves into a non-profit that uses their funds to maintain and upgrade the system to what it is now. Using utility funds and grants from both the Puerto Rican and mainland US government, the initial single groundwater well has been upgraded to include a chlorine disinfection system in 1970, a second aqueduct in 1994, solar panels to operate the pumps in 2015, and a backup battery for the solar panels in 2017. Corcovada has been operating their water system independently for 42 years without losing pressure for more than 24 hours, even after Hurricane Maria. These two aqueducts have provided uninterrupted access to drinking water for 160 families and that number continues to grow.

Corcovada is working to make themselves a pillar of community organization and resilience in Puerto Rico. They just received an $80,000 grant to install solar panels on the roofs of every family’s house in the community. Cesar said to us, “The government and other external resources are there to help us in our development; we, in turn, must work for it”. With this technology, Corcovada is on their way to becoming an entirely self sufficient community.

Cesar Irizarry demonstrating the Corcovada water system

Cesar Irizarry demonstrating the Corcovada water system

However, Iris and Cesar’s work doesn’t stop at the edge of their community--they are trying to spread their methods of community organization and sustainable practices to other communities across the world. We finished the tour and went back up to the festival, now completely in full swing. Cesar urged us to make ourselves at home and enjoy the concert and local dishes, just as another tour group like ours arrived. We were very impressed with the work the Corcovada community has done over these past 42 years and are excited to follow their continued path towards sustainability.

Lunch is served in corcovada

Lunch is served in corcovada

scenes from the corcovada three kings festival

scenes from the corcovada three kings festival

Marvel Marchand Visit

by Krizia Medero and Hilyarit Santiago

With the passing of time, Puerto Rico has been affected by factors like a big economic crisis and an in-debt government.  These circumstances have caused the paralyzing of construction projects that had been started. Aside from the economy, in Puerto Rico there is a lot of illegal construction which implies that proper construction processes have not been practiced, and therefore, these additions don’t comply with code. The hurricanes Irma and María brought to light issues that had been taken for granted in the past.

The Marvel Marchand architecture firm has been involved in the island’s uplifting after the disasters ever since these occurred. Their projects focus on achieving resiliency in the topics of energy, housing, and community. Taking into consideration that after the hurricanes, the main source of energy came from generators, an organization named Resilient Power Puerto Rico developed a sustainable alternative to replace these in the most affected communities.

The organization’s project involves the installation of solar panels in community centers which are strategically chosen around the island. Undergoing these installations is a long process since it not only involves building and installing the panels, but also educating the community about the equipment and their maintenance in the long term.

Marvel Marchand’s projects require an approximately $25,000 cost in which the bulk is incurred in the energy-storing batteries. These batteries can cost from $10,000 to $11,000 dollars. These installations are mainly financed by donations.

Aside from these installations, the firm has been involved in affordable housing projects, and in Puerto Rico this means that the final cost of the housing is often less than $120,000. The firm’s design involves having modular housing that can be arranged in many ways. These units can be placed together in order to achieve successful densification depending on where they are to be located. These houses include natural light, cross ventilation, and separation of the energy and water systems. This project proposal shows a sustainable and affordable solution for the islanders.

Presentation at Marvel Marchand

Presentation at Marvel Marchand