January 15, 2020

On September 20, 2017, all of Puerto Rico—including the small island of Vieques—was plunged into blackness as sustained winds, heavy rainfall, and severe flooding from Category 5 Hurricane María completely destroyed the electric power grid. With emergency supplies already depleted from Hurricane Irma’s landfall two weeks prior, the situation for Puerto Rico and its people quickly became dire due to a severe lack of food, potable water, and medical care.

In October of that same year, six enterprising students in SIPA’s Energy and Environment (EE) concentration, together with a student in Columbia’s MS in Management Science and Engineering program, began brainstorming ideas for their EE Practicum, a hands-on field work project in which student-led teams tackle cutting-edge issues in the energy and environment sectors.

This past summer, this group’s Post-María Puerto Rico project came to a thrilling culmination as a 7 kilowatt (kW) off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the roof of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico (BGCPR) clubhouse in Vieques went online. This supplemental power source, together with a 27 kilowatt hour (kWh) battery storage system, not only enables the BGCPR clubhouse to satisfy up to 100 percent of its own energy needs but also helps the Vieques community move closer to energy independence and regular, reliable power—even in times of crisis.

A Real Approach to a Real Problem

Formerly known as the Global Collaboratory, the Energy and Environment Practicum helps empower students as they explore their career interests and build their experience in the global energy and environment field. While designing and implementing their projects, teams receive financial support thanks to contributions from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and the Earth Institute. They also benefit from expert guidance from industry leaders and Columbia faculty, such as EE concentration codirectors, Wolfram Schlenker and David Sandalow; Philip LaRocco of SIPA; and Geoffrey Heal of Columbia Business School. “The EE Practicum is very popular with students,” says Sandalow. “It’s an excellent way for them to both learn and make a difference. Our students have worked on challenges close to home, such as helping New York City meet its goals for deploying electric buses, and around the world, such as bringing solar power to African villages and cooling technologies to poor neighborhoods in Bangladesh.”

When the call for EE Practicum applications went out in fall 2017, Rashide Assad MPA ’18, Eskedar Gessesse MIA ’19, Rodrigo Inurreta MIA ’19, David Maravilla MPA ’18, Rodrigo Paz y Rocha ’18SEAS/BUS, Alejandro Valdez MPA ’19, and Lara Younes MIA ’19 naturally gravitated toward each other through a shared interest in energy and climate resilience.

“The devastation in Puerto Rico was at the top of everyone’s minds at the time,” recalls Gessesse, who moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia to attend Mount Holyoke College and earn her undergraduate degree in environmental and developmental studies. “The idea of coming up with something practical to help the people of Puerto Rico recover—instead of a theoretical, research-based project that would create data but no solutions—really appealed to all of us.”

Seeking the Right Partner in a Time of Great Need

Vieques, a small island located off of Puerto Rico’s eastern coast and home to 9,000 residents, emerged as a viable location in need of assistance. During María, the underwater power-transmission lines that funneled electricity from Puerto Rico’s main island to the more remote Vieques were heavily damaged, leading inhabitants to produce what little power they could through inefficient, unsustainable, and sometimes-dangerous diesel generators since the hurricane hit.

While the seed of the idea to deploy some kind of renewables-based microgrid on Vieques appeared quickly, it took more time and consideration to flourish.

“It was somewhat a long process to really cement the foundation for the Post-María Puerto Rico project,” says Inurreta, a graduate of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) and a former political-risk consultant in the Mexican oil and gas sector. “We first started talking with federal government agencies and international organizations but realized that avenue was going to take longer than we wanted.”

The team found advice and direction from Joaquín Avilés Lopez, founder and CEO of i4SD, a global social enterprise focused on smart and connected infrastructure and its applications for sustainable development. Avilés, together with John Humphrey, an energy systems engineer, assisted the team with envisioning a system that could be replicable throughout Puerto Rico.

“We then started engaging NGOs in February 2018,” recalls Inurreta, “and came up with the idea that a small solarpowered system in a community center could be scaled and reproduced in different locations.”

Rooftop solar systems are an excellent choice in Puerto Rico, as they can endure winds of up to 155 mph—less than 1 percent of the rooftop solar systems in the country were damaged by Hurricane María, according to local solar installers.

In addition, local stakeholders, including the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, provided the team detailed information about Vieques, the situation of the power grid, and the political and economic circumstances of Puerto Rico.

With the technical piece beginning to take shape, the team traveled to Vieques over spring break in 2018 to find the right community partner for the project. The students sought an organization that had played a key role in relief efforts on the island and was able to provide nonprofit services to the community in nonemergency situations. The BGCPR surfaced as the top contender.

“The BGCPR of Vieques was by far the most efficient and most engaged of the NGOs we met with,” says Inurreta. “Both sides of the partnership wanted this to be sustainable in the long run, and the BGCPR was in the midst of upgrading their community center to better serve the people on the island. By boosting the available power at the center, it could serve as a food distribution point, a cell phone charging station, and a signal booster for satellite Wi-Fi during emergencies, as well as function as a learning space and social center in nonemergency times.”

The SIPA team met with Patricia de la Torre, private partnership director at the BGCPR, who has worked with the nonprofit youth organization since early 2017—before María hit.

“When the students reached out with their idea of making the Boys & Girls Clubs in Vieques more of a resilient hub and community center, we thought it was brilliant,” says de la Torre. “They have been very focused and proactive along the way, from taking the lead on the design of the project to identifying the correct funding source. They’re an amazing group, and Columbia also gets some credit because they’re promoting how important community-based projects are in the energy sector.”

Running the Numbers

After the SIPA team and the BGCPR decided to work together in this pilot project, they signed a memorandum of understanding to coordinate efforts and facilitate the deployment of a PV system with battery storage.

To generate power at the time in 2018, the Vieques BGCPR clubhouse was using a diesel generator as well as a 6 kW solar PV system with two 13.5 kWh Powerwall batteries lent to them by Tesla for humanitarian services after the hurricane. The PV system generated about one-third of the power needed to run the BGCPR facility, but with the energy stored in the batteries it could cover almost 50 percent of the facility’s load requirements during any given day.

Through data analysis, the team calculated that the BGCPR clubhouse needed an additional 7 kW PV system with two additional 13.5 kWh Powerwall batteries. This system was estimated to cost upwards of $40,000, and the plan was to finance half with fundraising and half with loans taken out by the BGCPR. However, as part of their ongoing work to facilitate the project, the team was able to help secure a $50,000 grant in fall 2018 from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) to fund the new system in its entirety.

“When I was younger, I was interested in becoming a priest, so I was very familiar with the CCHD, which is the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference,” says Inurreta. “I reached out to them to find out if the Post-María Puerto Rico project qualified for a grant, and they were very happy to hear from me—it turns out that they were looking for projects to fund in Puerto Rico because they had set aside money specifically to help victims of Hurricane María.”

In October 2018, Tesla also decided to donate the original solar PV system and storage batteries to the BGCPR.

A Lasting Impact in Puerto Rico

In July, Gessesse, Inurreta, Valdez, and Younes gathered together in New York City for two momentous occasions: a celebration for the 2019 graduates, and, with Assad and Paz y Rocha attending via conference call from Mexico City, to select a company to supply the BGCPR PV system with storage— the final step of the Post-María Puerto Rico project.

“That was a great way to wrap up our time at SIPA,” says Inurreta. “At that time, the appointed provider confirmed they would bring the hardware to Vieques in three weeks’ time and the system would be up and running in another two weeks.”

In September, the team traveled again to Vieques to assess the installation of the solar PV system and storage before finalizing their report to the CCHD on the completion of the project and its impact on the community. With the power stored within the batteries at any given time, the system should be able to supply enough electricity for the BGCPR clubhouse to operate normally for at least 8 hours. This added capacity is crucial—the first few hours after an emergency are key because the need to communicate with people and organize relief efforts is the greatest.

“We are beyond proud that we have been able to make a real difference in Vieques,” says Inurreta. “In conversations that we had at SIPA and in Puerto Rico, it was important to us that we not offer aid by saying, ‘Oh, we’ll just fix this for you the way we think it should be done.’ Communities want to be able to help themselves and be a part of creating their own solutions.

“We have helped the BGCPR gather the tools they need, and now it is in their hands to keep it up for their citizens. That responsibility and strength is a powerful thing.”

De la Torre, who remembers well the struggles of the Vieques BGCPR club to serve as the community’s emergency power distribution center after María had left the island completely disconnected, is prepared to take on that challenge.

“It’s a blessing to have the Vieques clubhouse moving toward energy resiliency,” says de la Torre. “Thanks to this initiative, we are ready to serve our community as an energy hub when the next crisis hits—a place where people can not only gather for the small things, such as charging their phones to stay in touch with loved ones, but also the major ones, such as keeping life-saving medications like insulin cold.”

Continuing to Heal

While Vieques and Puerto Rico have recovered in some ways since Hurricane María’s damaging landfall, there is still much work to be done. As of September, Vieques still didn’t have a functioning hospital. Residents had to take the ferry to the mainland for emergency services, including heart attacks, labor and delivery, and other major health issues. Also, the second-largest employer on Vieques, the W Hotel, still had not reopened since María.

Happily, the BGCPR has continued its good work thanks to the SIPA EE Practicum: because of their connecting with the CCHD, they were able to secure another grant to fund the Youth Development Institute, a sister organization that works in advocacy and public policy for children that live in poverty in Puerto Rico.

As for Gessesse, her experience with the Post-María Puerto Rico project has had a major impact on her future— in August, she began working at the World Bank in its Caribbean Energy Resiliency Program, helping countries in the area to rethink their power-sector planning and strategy and reliance on the grid.

“When I was being interviewed for the World Bank, nearly every single question was about the project in Vieques,” says Gessesse. “Our EE Practicum project has been one of the highlights of my graduate school experience—it’s wonderful to have gained the knowledge and expertise I did, but nothing feels as good as knowing that what we learned is helping real people get through real problems.”

Kathrin Havrilla-Sanchez

This story appears in the most recent issue of SIPA Magazine, published in December 2019.