Fresh Perspectives on Puerto Rico’s Sustainability Why Socio-Technology Might Matter Most

800px-Sustainable_development.svgI have spent nearly a week as on the archipelago that is Puerto Rico as a student attorney with the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic networking and connecting with students, industry leaders, and scholars in the microgrid and sustainable agriculture sectors. In the past two days, I had the distinct pleasure of partaking in back-to-back meetings, first with the Director of the Puerto Rico Resilience Fund and El Departamento De La Comida, non-profit with the goal of opening two-hundred local and sustainable farms in the next 24 months; and the second with the Steering Commissioner of INESI, an organization connecting faculty experts in energy transitions and resiliency throughout the 11 University of Puerto Rico campuses, and further connecting them with international partners.

While the two meetings were vastly different. They were different in structure (the first took place in Professor Kim Diana Connolly’s AirBnB kitchen table, and the second took place in French-style brunch restaurant), and they were radically different in specific content. Yet, both meetings left me with one very similar takeaway. Whether it’s Puerto Rico, Cuba, or Buffalo, before a community can overcome its self-sufficiency issues, a community must undergo a sociological change regarding what environmental access to justice means to it.

It was very interesting to hear all of both sets of meeting participants share one thing I have learned more about in Puerto Rico\ They both focused some of our discussions on the colonial nature of the Islands, and how this theme shapes each of their individual perspectives on how to decolonize.

Healthy food distribution networks and hub models are one goal, especially because food hubs are pliable and can be tailored to the specific needs on a community level, both big and small. According to the Director of the Resilience Fund, the Islands import anywhere from 85% to 98% of all consumed food, and most deaths on the Islands are diet related. Therefore, it naturally follows that the most logical solution to Puerto Rico’s dependency on imported food is the Fund’s creation of sustainable farms, markets, and food distribution networks.

But what does true sovereignty look like and how does Puerto Rico get there? INESI’s Steering Commissioner explained his view that if the social aspects of sustainability become separated from the technological, then renewables can be very harmful when operated by the wrong regime by way of regime-locking methods within infrastructure, colonialism, and systemic inequality. Both groups attest that transparency in renewable solutions and education within communities is critical to Puerto Rico’s ongoing sustainability and decolonialization movement.

Listening to these influential players in their respective sectors and their takes on how to change society’s path towards self-sufficient sustainable practices made me reflect on how Buffalo, NY struggles form its own solutions to similar problems. I am now wondering whether PUSH’s Green Development Zone be a flexible model for a community in Puerto Rico?

If you want to check out the Resilience Fund, INESI, and PUSH, I’ve provided the links here:

Be on the lookout for my next #UBLawResponds post detailing coming developments and possible partnership opportunities with these newly-formed connections on the Islands.

Let It Shine – Shedding Light On Puerto Rico’s Microgrid Predicament

Almost everyone has lost power in their home or apartment at some point. Perhaps, you’ve experienced just a short outage, or maybe you’ve had the unpleasant experience of being without power for several days. Born and raised in Western New York, I recall losing power for several days during the October Storm of 2006. Roughly half a million people were without power after the Storm dropped 3.5 feet of snow on the Greater Buffalo Region, and nearly 100,000 people were still without power five days later.

By comparison, Puerto Rico has roughly 800,000 to 1.3 million people who are either without power entirely or require generators to run basic appliances. Maunabo in particular, has not had power since Hurricane Irma, well before Maria destroyed the island’s entire electrical grid. With only 50% of the island maintaining reliable power generation, discussions amongst numerous politicians, agencies, and industry leaders center on how to build Puerto Rico a new grid network that can produce cleaner, more efficient power that will withstand the force of the next category 5 hurricane.

A grid as a whole, is just the centralized electrical system. PREPA’s traditional grid structure, like many traditional grids elsewhere, is a linkage of power plants; power stations and substations to make electricity transferable long distance through high voltage and stepped-down power lines; and household transformers. A microgrid is just a miniature version of the traditional grid, with the ability to become decentralized from the main grid.

A microgrid approach, based on a network of mini power grids, seems to make the most sense and I am merely one of thousands of people who share this sentiment. The reasoning is simple, too. A microgrid allows the power user to become disconnected from the traditional grid, but still have power. How? The user is connected to the traditional grid structure, in Puerto Rico’s case this would be PREPA’s grid, in addition to having the microgrid.

When it’s sunny, the microgrid creates its own solar power, convertible into AC power for use with home and business appliances. When there are several days in a row of sunlight, the microgrid holds a surplus of energy, which it can spin back through the traditional utility meter into PREPA’s grid. User utility bills are reduced accordingly based on the amount of surplus energy transferred back onto the traditional grid. In the event of a traditional grid outage, the microgrid can survive on its own until its stored energy runs out.

Unlike in other areas on the mainland, the situation Puerto Rico does not hinge on accepting that microgrids are a good idea for that area: the general consensus is they are absolutely necessary. Accordingly, the critical debate now centers on how much money a network of microgrids for the Island will cost. Additionally, experts and politicians within the United States are hesitant to give PREPA control of funds for contract procurement given the recent controversies involving PREPA awarding contracts to defunct entities. The Financial Oversight Management Board (FOMB) and PREPA are split on whether privatization of Puerto Rico’s energy generation is in the best interest of consumers.

Readers can find the current microgrid proposal (and other information about the grid) here.  The proposal highly encourages PREPA become privatized and interested readers are highly encouraged to read the proposal to get an idea of which private actors are involved.

PREPA’s internal regulator, the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, opened a 30-day comment period on the proposed regulations and microgrid installations on January 9th. Today, January 24th, the FOMB and PREPA are scheduled to release fiscal policy recommendations outlining what the privatization of PREPA might look like.