Engaging Communities in Puerto Rico's Energy Transition?

by Krizia Medero Padilla

Sunset in Mayagüez Puerto Rico

Sunset in Mayagüez Puerto Rico

“La tierra reduce el escenario en que ha de moverse la cultura.” [ The land limits the scenery in which culture can roam.] - Antonio S. Pedreira

As a 21st century colony, that has been recently hit by two large hurricanes, and has been under economic turmoil for years, Puerto Rico is in a state of transition. Post natural disaster rebuilding actions have been occurring to get the island back on its feet. However, the most imperative question has yet to be answered: What are we working to rebuild? Non- profit organizations, private companies, firms, and higher education can and have worked on the island to provide aid and reform Puerto Rico’s energy system. Many see this as an opportunity to have the energy system transformed all together (Foehringer, 2018) this is not just by proposing an energy strategy but getting at the origin of these problems which for the most part revolve around policy. (Foehringer, 2018) However, in order to get not only back on their feet but also begin to move forward, the entirety of the island has to be working towards a sustainable energy transition. What would be the best strategy that can be implemented by communities and local leaders to get communities to engage in energy transition? This paper presents culture as a unifying entity that aims to get the people of Puerto Rico back on their feet. This is to be achieved by getting directly involved in the island’s energy transition and allowing the people to grow. This premise is made based on informative precedents from communities who have achieved this in the island like Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, Corcovada in Añasco, Marina in Humacao and the many community centers that Resilient Power Puerto Rico has impacted.

First, it is pertinent to present the island’s current scope in regards to energy. About three-fourths of the energy used in Puerto Rico comes from petroleum products, which are all imported; primarily through the ports of San Juan, Guayanilla, and Ponce. Puerto Rico's electricity is supplied by PREPA, a government agency that owns the electricity transmission and distribution systems for the main island, Vieques, and Culebra, as well as 85% of the electricity generating capacity. (EIA, 2018) However, PREPA is currently decomposing as it is completely bankrupt as is currently being forced to pay unaudited debt and the government as well. If there is one thing that everyone can agree upon, it is that a robust, resilient and sustainable energy regime can no longer depend on centralized fossil fuel-dependent power generation and distribution. In order for this to change, Puerto Rico needs energy democracy, meaning a transition to renewable power resources, reclaiming public and social control over the energy sector and opening the design and implementation of energy policy to the participation of all sectors of society. (Carmona, 2018) However, this entails having an in-depth discussion about the kind of sustainable society that people envision, policy reformation towards certain liberties for island-nations and the involvement of the population. Considering that the PREPA is broke, and given that microgrids are now the emerging trend to which energy is transitioning to, how can we communicate the importance of everyone’s involvement in this process when not everyone is educated on sustainable energy sourcing or their roles through this process?

We can begin to involve the population by appealing to their culture and their identity. Puerto Rican identity is often characterized by the union of several cultures (the native taínos, Spanish, and African) and from the addition of other cultures like the united states, Dominican Republic and Cuba. A Puerto Rican’s identity is product of a sponge that has absorbed the very best form other cultures to make it ours and that’s how we established ours in this day and age. (Torres, 2015) Puerto Ricans have many unifying elements as part of their culture. From the way Christmas is celebrated, to typical dances like Bomba, and from sweet music of a Puerto Rican Cuatro (native instrument). Puerto Ricans have numerous rich cultural elements that the population identifies with but none as greatly praised as their food. In “La Manteca q nos une” [The grease that unites us], Magally García Ramis expresses that: "the grease that unites us, makes its way through everywhere, and no one can escape its temptation, it captures us and stays forever, and is always with us it stains un with it’s unequivocal mark: belly fat.” She establishes food as the most important element in our culture and traces parallels between being Puerto Rican and a Puerto Rican’s belly fat by saying that no matter where you go you always carry both with you.

“Puerto Rican traditional Food Frituras”

“Puerto Rican traditional Food Frituras”

Even though Puerto Ricans are highly optimistic about the power their food has, they can be a bit pessimistic as to their perception of themselves and their status. Antonio S. Pedreira, a renowned Puerto Rican author, wrote one of the most emblematic pieces of Puerto Rican literature from 30’s generation; Insularismo [Insularism]. In this literary piece, Pedreira elaborates on how the hot climate, the surrounding water boundaries, and our political maelstrom have caused the Puerto Ricans to turn “aplatanaus” which is the Puerto Rican jargon word for lazy. ( Pedreira,1934) Seeing how this is a highly distributed reading, it can arguably become part of the common perception. Given the current climate, in order to get more communities working and seeing that this is possible the islanders need to speak up using the positive and reaffirming elements of their identity by reinstating their culture and coming together to reinforce it.

Organizations like CMRC have put their hard work into good use and have created platforms that this reaffirmation to happen. Even though these natural disasters brought a lot turmoil into the island and sharpened its state of crisis, as title of Antonio Carmona Báez’s reading says, “It takes a hurricane…”. This unfortunate turn of events has been a wake-up call and the interest that several non-profit organizations have taken in the islanders cannot be neglected. In the hours following the landfall of Hurricane Maria, the Coastal Marine Resource Centre (CMRC), a non-profit focused on issues of social and environmental justice, set up the website ‘Resilient Power Puerto Rico’, to gather funds for the purpose of providing generators to the most underserved areas of the island as a “relief measure to get communities powered up and back in contact with a planned evolution into long-term disaster-preparedness and clean-energy solutions to impact the entire island”. CMRC has experience setting up temporary solar panels and disseminating batteries for weather-stricken neighborhoods. Churches, community organizations universities joined in on supporting such efforts. (Carmona 2018) Working alongside Resilient Power Puerto Rico, Marvel Marchand architects has been actively involved in the island’s uplifting. Taking CMRC’s model, RPPR’s project began installing solar panels in community centers which are strategically chosen around the island. The process of establishing these installations can extend itself a significant amount since they are so much more than building and installing photo voltaic panels. A significant amount of time is invested in educating the community on how to operate the equipment and give it proper maintenance. These initiatives and projects have been possible due to donations and initiatives that have come from outside of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican communities in order to take advantage of these oasis need to work together as a community and engage in conversations about energy transitions.

When referring solely to the economy, the crisis due to the enormous debt has had terrible repercussions in other important public institutions. Recently, UPR has been subject to state-level austerity tied to the island’s growing debt, resulting in faculty and staff layoffs, declining student enrollment, and increased dependence on student tuition. (Alan A. Aja. Et al., 2018) Due to these circumstances, many students have left to go to the mainland and pursue their studies. Puerto Rican student Anais Roque was offered and opportunity to study abroad by the University of Arizona. When invited to speak with us during the Global Convergence Lab, she elaborated on the topic of her doctoral dissertation which involved the role of social capital and resilience in Puerto Rican communities. She particularly presented the communities of Corcovada in the town of Añasco and Marina in Humacao since these are two of the best organized communities in the island and therefore are star examples of resilience. The common denominator among these communities is their organization and will to work. Instead of waiting for the government to aid them, they took matters into their own hands and in the case of Corcovada, developed their own aqueduct system. When there’s a will there’s a way in this case it got them “Agua Para Todos” [Water for All], which is the name of their campaign. The people involved in Corcovada’s project are people that are proud of their land, they work for their accomplishments and are anything but “aplatanaus” like Pedreira would say.

Casa Pueblo’s Founder Alexis González

Casa Pueblo’s Founder Alexis González

Another community with a heartwarming success story is located in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. Founded by Alexis Massol González and Mrs. Tinti Deyá Díaz, Casa Pueblo was born the government's plans of open-pit mining of silver, gold, and copper. Casa Pueblo knew that the government’s project would create an ecological disaster on the island and therefore decided to inform the town’s people to get them involved in a protest at the town’s plaza but only one person showed. The community perceived the founders of Casa Pueblo as revolutionaries and were seemingly scared of them. In order to get the people 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 the concert was being held, the founders educated the citizens of Adjuntas on the importance of preserving the environment. 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. Casa Pueblo has continued to participate in active stances against the government in order to prevent it from another ecological disaster. They have saved their lands from the forced implementation of a natural gas duct, they have created a model forest out of a significant amount of virgin land, and they served as an energy oasis during the after-math of the hurricane, and chose this opportunity to educate the public further about the power of sustainable energy. The government may be going through a drought, but Casa Pueblo has enough proposals and movement to boost their development. This was the community movement that knew how to defend itself from the natural gas pipeline that would cross the entire island. They built a forest school, they live under energetic self-sufficiency with renewable sources and they have their own voice with Casa Pueblo Radio. They have liberty and happiness even in times of adversity. (Massol, 2015) Through their radio station, the solar movie theater, their music school program Casa Pueblo is not only a representation of good community engagement, but also a harbor for Puerto Rican culture to be preserved and celebrated.

The common denominator between all these communities was the desire to take manners into their own hands, and their cultural background which is the binding force. There can’t be a solid move towards energy transition if the community that is on the receiving end is not on board. Doing what we have already done won’t get us new results. Therefore, in order to get more communities working and seeing that this is possible we need to do as Casa Pueblo’s founder Alexis Gonzalez mentioned in his presentation, we need to have our voices heard through culture. Marvel Marchand, served as an oasis to the community of architects during the after math providing the communities with space for engagement. Casa Pueblo took the opportunity of this turmoil to teach their community about sustainable energy sourcing. Anais Roque is studying abroad and giving back to the community through her research topic. I once again state that this unfortunate turmoil has been a big wake-up call and has ignited a spark that needs to be shared. In the words of Alexis González: “What now?” How can we take Casa Pueblo’s model and modernize it in order for it to appeal to the younger Puerto Rican population? How can we get the fast-moving metropolitan area to prioritize conversations about energy transitions? Where do we begin to gather and strategize cultural approaches in order for communities to get excited and educated about energy transitions?

Puerto Rico is the Island of Enchantment

Puerto Rico is the Island of Enchantment


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