Developing a Resilient Energy Infrastructure for Puerto Rico

Nearly one year ago, on September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, made landfall on Puerto Rico. The resulting electricity blackout was the largest and longest in U.S. history. Since the hurricane, a year-long DUSP practicum of MIT students, led by Associate Professor David Hsu, have been applying their knowledge and technical skills to collaborate with a local community group to develop a plan for a resilient energy system.

Maria was the most severe storm to directly hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years, with winds reaching 155mph, and the storm wreaked widespread devastation throughout the Caribbean. Much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure system, already aging and in disrepair before the storm, was destroyed by Maria. Electrical transmission lines collapsed under falling trees, distribution poles and wires were toppled by fierce winds and flying debris, resulting in a complete power blackout on the island.

The electric utility, PREPA, financially bankrupt even before the storm, has been criticized heavily for mismanaging efforts to restore power. PREPA took months to restore power to many urban areas, and some rural parts of the island’s mountainous interior were without power six months or longer. The death toll from the impacts of Maria in Puerto Rico is estimated at between 2,658 and 3,290 people, including deaths due to the medical and sanitary complications of being without electricity.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a contentious debate has accompanied the rebuilding and transformation of the island’s energy system. The Puerto Rican Governor, Ricardo Rosselló (SB ’01), announced plans to privatize the bankrupt, publicly-owned utility. Much of the island’s existing electricity generation is fossil-fuel based, expensive, and highly polluting. Many advocates have been pushing for a transformation to a more decentralized, resilient, and renewable energy system on the island, while many residents are installing solar home systems with battery storage to provide resilience in emergencies.

MIT students and faculty participating in the practicum work with residents of the Coquí community in Salinas, on the southern part of the island. Residents there suffer from disproportionate environmental and health consequences from the island’s fossil fuel power system, since many of the most polluting power plants are in close proximity, even though most of the power from the plants is used in population centers in the north, such as San Juan. Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the community of Coquí is accelerating their efforts to transition to renewable energy, create green jobs, and pursue environmental justice for their community members.

MIT students are developing an integrated financial and technical plan towards the community’s vision for a more sustainable future. Marian Swain, MCP candidate and two-time Puerto Rico practicum participant reflected upon her experiences working with the community members of Coquí:

During our visits to Coquí in March and August 2018, we were able to see and hear first-hand from the community about the challenges and opportunities they see in the Puerto Rican energy system. We are inspired by how many young people were actively involved in the community solar project, including several high school-aged students.

Everyone had stories of hardship as they struggled to recover from the damage of the hurricane and endured months without power. Even with power mostly restored now, residents still experience frequent outages. The environmental justice concerns are also very real and tangible: community members showed us pictures of coal ash in their gardens that had blown over from an improperly stored coal ash pile at one of the nearby power plants.

The idea of implementing a community solar project in Coquí is not only about cleaner, more reliable energy. Many of the community members we spoke to expressed the importance of grassroots projects like this as a form of empowerment for people who have been historically subjugated under colonial rule, first by the Spanish, and now in a complex and fraught relationship with the United States. The community members we spoke to said the goal is to transform how they interact with the larger grid.

The MIT practicum participants include, Associate Professor David Hsu, PHD student Lilian Bui, MCP students Collyn Chan, Scott Gilman, Jeff Jamawat, Amy Meyer, Saritha Ramakrishna, Jessica Quezada, Marian Swain, Amelia Taylor-Hochberg, Carrie Watkins, and Angela Wong. In addition, the team is working with DUSP alumni Adam Hasz (MCP ’18). Collaborators include Professor Efrain O’Neill of University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez and several of his Masters students in Electrical Engineering, Coquí Solar, Ruth Santiago, and IDEBAJO, an environmental justice and green jobs coalition in the southern island.

The practicum will return to Puerto Rico throughout the fall of 2018 to work with collaborators and the community, and to refine the plan with the local community and university collaborators. To learn more about opportunities to participate in the practicum in the future, contact Associate Professor David Hsu or PHD Student Lily Bui.


Special thanks to MCP Candidate Marian Swain for her help authoring this piece.
Image credit: Wikipedia, Time Magazine, David Hsu, Marian Swain, Lily Bui