A plan designed by a team of Harvard University students to create a reliable source of renewable, affordable electricity for a Puerto Rican community hammered in 2017 by Hurricane Maria has moved a step closer to reality.
The community group Unidos por Utuado has won $100,000 in seed funding from the Puerto Rico Big Ideas Challenge to implement the plan by students enrolled in Harvard’s “Climate Solutions Living Lab” course.
The proposal calls for revitalizing three nearby, long-neglected hydroelectric units to generate inexpensive, reliable electricity that emits virtually no greenhouse gases. The students’ vision is that a community-based electric cooperative would own the power facility and ensure that local residents control new jobs and other benefits created by the project.
“The seed funding will allow the community to form the cooperative and hire people to help them move the concept forward,” said Wendy Jacobs ’81, the faculty leader of the course and the Emmett Clinical Professor of Environmental Law and director of the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.
The project began in January 2018 when Jacobs dispatched one of six students on the team, Alyssa Curran, M.U.P. ’18, to the island. Curran toured Puerto Rico, including the storm-ravaged inland community of Utuado, and observed the destruction of homes and commercial buildings, roads, and electric infrastructure. She also connected with Unidos por Utuado, one of many community groups mobilizing disaster relief on the island. At the time, “Climate Solutions Living Lab” was considering several projects in Puerto Rico, and Curran, in consultation with Jacobs, decided one of those should focus on Utuado because of the barriers it faced to storm recovery.
Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico. A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found that the number of deaths related to the September 2017 storm was much larger than the official estimates, and there were 4,645 additional deaths in the three-month period following the storm, which is believed to have caused more than $90 billion in damage. Electric service was only recently restored to the entire island. In Utuado, an isolated mountain community of approximately 30,000, about 30 percent of households were without electricity and safe running water seven months after the storm struck.
Back at Harvard, the students participating in the spring 2018 class who were assigned to the Utuado project proposed that rather than build a new power source for the community, they would recycle an old one.
The plan was this: Utuado would create an electric cooperative to acquire and refurbish three legacy hydroelectric units on lakes Dos Bocas and Caonillas and install a pumped solar system. In addition to providing reliable energy, the facility would save money. Puerto Rican’s electric bills are the highest in the U.S. next to Hawaii, the students’ research found, and they believed that adopting their plan could slash electric rates to about 8 cents per kWh, compared with the approximately 20 cents per kWh they now pay.
The benefits to the climate were also clear, according to the students. Currently, 98 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity is generated by fossil fuels. However, the students estimated the hydroelectric plants would generate approximately 26.5 megawatts of clean energy, with a potential offset of about 115,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in year one and an average of 105,000 tons of offsets per year over a 20-year time period. Reducing that amount of emissions annually is equivalent to taking more than 22,000 vehicles off the road, or the average energy use of more than 11,000 homes.
The Puerto Rico project is one of nine projects developed in the course since its 2017 launch, as part of Harvard’s ambitious climate action goals and Living Lab initiative.
The innovative course is a partnership between the Office for Sustainability and Harvard Law School and was developed to engage multidisciplinary teams of graduate students in working together to test innovative solutions or renewable energy investments — such as the Puerto Rico project — that achieve actual emissions reductions beyond the Harvard campus while also achieving other social, economic, and health benefits.
Under Jacobs’ leadership, the Climate Solutions Living Lab engages with senior faculty experts from across Harvard’s professional Schools as well as outside experts, and operates like a professional project development team. The teams of six students are comprised of master’s and doctoral students from Harvard Business School (HBS), Harvard Chan School, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Law School, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Graduate School of Design, and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
In addition to Curran, the Puerto Rico team included: Ethan Hughes, Harvard Chan School; Leticia Rojas, HKS; Bridger Ruyle, SEAS; Max Tenney ’18, HLS; and Isabella Wechsler, HKS and HBS.
This article was published in the Harvard Gazette on December 14, 2018.