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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“¿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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. LionelR. Orama-Exclusa, Faculty of Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez (UPRM) and Member of the Steering Committee of theNational 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.
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.
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.