Got Science? Podcast | Episode 61 Building a More Resilient Puerto Rico with Clean Energy

June 18, 2019
Yanel de Ángel and Ramón Bueno, an architect and climate expert originally from Puerto Rico, discuss how the island can bounce back stronger with renewable energy and other sustainable practices.

In this episode Yanel and Ramón talk about:

  • What resiliency means, and how to explain it to difference audiences
  • ResilientSEE and its work for Puerto Rico
  • Changing the process of transparency and accountability to build stronger communities

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-0:44)
  • Intro (0:44-2:40)
  • Interview Pt 1 (2:40-13:28)
  • Break (13:28-14:26)
  • Interview Pt 2 (14:26-23:41)
  • This Week in Science History Throw (23:41-23:47)
  • This Week in Science History (23:47-27:10)
  • Outro (27:10-28:30)

Related content:

Full Transcript

Abby: Yanel and Ramón, welcome to "Got Science." Thanks for being here with us today.

Yanel:Thank you for having us.

Ramón:Likewise, yeah.

Abby: So, we're here today to talk about clean energy. And some of the exciting developments happening in this sector. One of the things that's been in the news a lot is this movement towards 100% clean electricity.

In the past couple of years, we've seen several states adopt this new goal. Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Washington State have all set goals for 100% clean electricity. And Puerto Rico announced that it too would reach this goal by 2050. What does having this type of goal mean for Puerto Rico and for Puerto Ricans who are still struggling to rebuild the grid after Hurricane Maria destroyed it?

Ramón:Well, it's a big deal. It's a big stretch, I would say, also, because right now, Puerto Rico is mostly fossil fuels, you know. There's some coal, oil, and gas, and maybe at most, two or so percent renewables. The reason it's a stretch is aside from those numbers, is that Puerto Rico, on the prior law, was supposed to have reached 12% renewables right around now and it clearly did not. So, it's gonna require not just setting good goals but changing the way things are done so that you meet those goals.

Abby: If Puerto Rico had already set a goal and had missed it, do you think this is the right approach of setting this 100% clean energy goals or is there something else that Puerto Rico or the other states should be doing?

Ramón:No, I think you need the goals so that you have something to be held against, you know, that you're trying to reach. But the key thing is and I hope that the crisis makes the difference is, really, institutional and political is having the will power to make sure that it's executed. And it's a very tricky thing because in Puerto Rico, over the last...the power utility over the last several decades has gone from having completed a tremendous job of electrifying the island to, all of a sudden, becoming captive to the alternating political parties naming boards of directors and executives and that kind of stuff. And that's led to stalemate and deterioration.

So that's the challenge, changing things so that things can actually happen. Allegedly, that's part of the plan. Right? They're tossing everything up and privatizing the generation and leasing the distribution and transmission. But that, by itself, is not a guarantee that it's gonna happen. It really requires just much more transparency, accountability, participation from all sectors to make sure that it happens.

Abby: Now, setting these goals is one thing and actually making it happen and making the changes happen is quite another endeavor. Yanel, I know that you went to Puerto Rico after the hurricane to help with disaster relief. And out of that experience, was born an organization that you put together called ResilientSEE. Tell us a little bit about ResilientSEE and why did you see such a need for this group to be formed?

Yanel:ResilientSEE is a multi-disciplinary platform. I like to call it a transdisciplinary platform. I have been told that word doesn't exist but I think it should exist because it's really the coming together of different areas and expertises. So, you have the private sector. You have the academic sector. You have non-profit organizations at the service of communities of every scale.

And we all come from different perspectives. I think the problems that we're trying to solve are too complex to be solved in a silo. Therefore, my insistence in the transdisciplinary where you're beyond disciplines. You're really trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes or expertise and see solutions from that lens so that you can find synergies to these very difficult problems.

So, in the platform, we have everything from social scientist, climate justice scientist, economist, architects, engineers, community capacity experts, all of these different components coming together to tackle whatever the problem is. So, the things that we are really involved with, kind of, have the scalability component, which we think is important. And Ramón was speaking to, you know, the island and policies that affect island-wide.

We are also working at the level of municipalities and at the level of communities, communities as small as 120..175 dwellings and as big as a municipality or even the island.

Abby: What did you see when you were there in Puerto Rico after the hurricane that inspired you to create this organization?

Yanel:So, it was not just what I saw but also a transformation. Diaspora outside of the island, like Ramón, myself, and many others, and even people that have been there or empathize with the situation were in the mainland feeling very, you know...well, how can I help out? I feel disconnected yet, you know, I want to help out.

So, that prompted the first trip. And in that trip, what I found was a sadness in people's eyes that I have never seen. And I saw sadness that went so deep into a well just by looking in someone's eyes that you could tell something really had shifted. And this was not just any other hurricane. This was, really, a turning point in the history of the island.

And we saw communities that were completely disfranchised, had no one to, kind of, root for them. And we were really drawn to those communities or municipalities that were in...basically, had no money and needed some guidance and strategic help.

Yeah. So, that was a very important trip to solidify our commitment. And to share with everyone that was, you know, back here in the mainland that had not had the opportunity to go there. You know, these are the conditions and they are dire and we need to come together.

Abby: You know, we're here today almost two years later, what are the projects that ResilientSEE is working on that excite you, that, you know, give you hope?

Yanel:We have four main projects. The first one that we took on very early on was the creation of a resilient manual for housing available for free to homeowners across the island. That effort is led by Enterprise Community Partners. They are a non-profit organization that advocates for equitable and affordable housing.

Right after Maria, I was very impressed because they were able to raise a substantial amount of money. And they put all of that money towards this project. And they assemble an amazing group of people. We became technical partners in that. We have done all the content creation, all the photography. And now, it's in the hands of a graphic designer, putting together the final manual that is coming out this summer. And then, after that, there is training.

Out of that project came the need to do a similar guide but kind of more abbreviated for what we are calling Community Resilient Hubs. Before Hurricane Maria, you know, from a society point of view or social point of view, things were kind of not as strong as they should have been. And Maria taught everyone the importance of communication and coming together.

The third project is we have been working in the Toa Baja Municipality. And the work we're doing at the municipality level is in partnership with MIT as well. That is they are developing a tool for early resilient planning. So, in the Toa Baja Municipality, we have the phenomenon of being able to see things from that level with a very collaborative and supportive and facilitating mayor and his administration. Then looking at communities that are, some of them, own title to land, some others don't. And helping them create resilient framework plan so that they can go after funding, secure that funding, and be, you know, off the grid, microgrids and so on.

Abby: Let's zoom out a little bit now from Puerto Rico to looking at the country at large. There's been a lot of progress with renewable energy and sort of this change to a clean energy system over the past few years. Yet, there was a really disturbing statistic that came out last month from the Energy Information Administration, the federal agency. And it said that, fossil fuel consumption has climbed. It climbed last year 4%. Even the renewable energy continuous to go up.

This is worrisome because we need to be moving in a downward direction with our fossil fuel use with the threat of climate change on top of us. What do you think is happening and should we be concerned that we're headed in the wrong direction?

Ramón:I think we should be concerned and not to drive the point too strongly but, for example, Puerto Rico is like a lens on the issue, magnifying it in a way that you can see things that are applicable elsewhere but, you know, for example, the fact that in Puerto Rio almost all the energy comes from fossil fuel as well. In that case there, it's all imported, which means it's extremely expensive. The island spends something like $2 billion a year on importing the fuel. That's money that's not circulating locally, creating other opportunities.

Not all communities have this thing but to the degree that many don't have their fuel. Somebody's paying to bring it in. Then there's the health impacts. Right? Almost all these plants have pollution that is not only the heat warming, you know, the climate warming facts that are causing, in the long run, all these other problems. But their communities that surround the plants all tend to have greater incidence of certain kinds of breathing and other health problems, which affect not only the community but it's also a cost to them and to the society at large. That is replicable all over the country.

So, from many different angles, there is an urgency, really, to getting a handle on this and finding the way to transition. And the economics of it are becoming very positive to substituting the mix of energy sources but the economics of the business and politics of it are still obstacles and finding a way to do it is important.

[Break]

Abby: Now, both of you have worked with individuals and with community groups in your work. How do you get folks on the ground who aren't thinking about these issues every day like you are to get excited about clean energy? How do you make sure that their voices are heard?

Well, the most vulnerable folks are the ones who are also on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. So, there's a double-triple incentive in reducing that because it's actually good for people who are not even poor because if the same disaster that took place in Puerto Rico, if say the bottom third or half the population who is economically disadvantaged, was much better conditions that the overall cost to the island and to the Congress here as well, will be much, much smaller.

So, it's in everybody's interest, really, to...it's not just a technical and physical problem. it's a socioeconomic problem. And if you can reduce the inequalities and improve... invest in reducing those things, you're actually already getting tremendous returns in terms of the greater resilience that reduce vulnerability so that when things do happen, you don't have to spend as many resources. And also, you avoid a lot of calamities, you know, the unnecessary deaths and so forth.

Yanel:Yeah. At the beginning you asked what is ResilientSEE as a...and I was explaining the platform. We write ResilientSEE, Resilient and then SEE for Social, Environmental, and Economic. You cannot fix one thing. It's a system. You need to kind of see it holistically.

I wanted to share with you a story. And that is one of the communities we're working with said...we're on this call and we were trying to understand what were the electrical needs of the community because we want to create a microgrid that is completely separated from the island gird.

And he said to the person who was asking a lot of the questions, you know, "This is not about..." He said, "I'm all for sustainability and renewable energy and all of this." This is beyond being, what he called it, "all hippy, let's whole hands." This is a need. This community does not have infrastructure to survive.

And I think in parts of the country where...either mainland or, you know, many island nations, you do have communities that cannot live out there. And you need to provide some kind of way for them to sustain themselves whether they are connected or not. That's another subject matter that you can...Ramón can better explain. But, yeah, it is necessity. We're at the point of necessity.

Ramón:It brings another interesting point. Recently, folks at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez produced some reports analyzing the impacts of the hurricane on the electrical system in Puerto Rico. It's a very interesting document. And one of the authors also has been studying the loss of power, quantifying just what's the scale of what happened. And it's very interesting. They have a measure called customer hours of lost electricity. That way, you can compare the scale in terms of the numbers of customers of an account. So, it's a household or something like that versus also the duration.

And what they found is that to the time when the last connection, restoring of power was taking place, it was something like 3,000 million hours. So, it's billion, you know, we're talking about. But then, going back to the vulnerability, what they found is that a third of those lost hours impacted the 200,000 homes that were last restored power, people who had well over five months without power.

The interesting point that they're arguing is that he's making a very strong pitch that the funds for, say, solar and...funds invested in improving the electrical system should begin with those people, putting...their more remote and isolated, putting solar panels and batteries with them because while everybody is making big plans, if another storm hits the hurricane season to the second season after that is only a few weeks away really.

So, those are the people who are the most vulnerable. So, talking about a productive investment is get those people protected so that while you make plans that are gonna take years, you've already reduced, you know, a third of the loss was 200,000 families, which is about 14% of all the customers. So, talk about an inversion of...the impacts were disproportionately on them but that's precisely where the investment should start, not with those who can afford to put improved systems and all that kind of stuff. I think that's a good lens to see things through.

Abby: I'm curious what you think individuals can do. What do you tell people who, you know, when they wanna get involved with clean energy?

Ramón:I think getting involved is the...I mean, it always helps to be a smart customer and to do all these things. But the solutions go beyond the individual. So, I think getting involved is very important at whatever capacity people have. There's gonna be a lot of discussion on legislation, for example, in the next year or two. And a lot of it is gonna come down to very narrow proposals. Some of them only very strictly technical versus others that are more comprehensive. And I think that's where these issues come into play.

What are all the aspects of benefits and savings? Is it just purely economical or are there health and other kind of consequences, community? So, I think getting involved and having the broadest possible view of the issue is really important. The technical stuff is essential but it's insufficient if it's not dealt with in the context of the larger political and economic, you know, communities.

Yanel:I agree 100% with what Ramón just said. But I'm gonna go back to the technical because I'm an architect and it's what I do every day. But, you know, an individual, let's say, someone in a household.

Yes, all the good things. You know, unplug what you don't use because if you leave it plugged, you know, it's still active. You know, don't turn your AC or your heater if you don't have to. All those things are good practices and should be encouraged but what we have nationwide, it's houses that not only have poor and inefficient equipment for, you know, AC, heating, and all of that. But actually, poor insulation and poor envelope detailing for the interface between window and wall, roof and wall, foundations, and all of that.

Abby: You know, there's a lot young people today who are getting involved in climate change action and in clean energy issues. How do you explain resiliency to a child, to a fourth grader? What does that term mean if you're a kid?

Yanel:I have a fifth grader.

Abby: Okay. How do you explain resiliency to your fifth grader?

Yanel:I would say it's the ability to bounce back but not necessarily to the state in which you were before but better, smarter, and in a way, to get there, building consensus along the way to your point of, you know, we need to see advocacy, policy, and all of these things at a bigger picture.

So, I think it's important when, you know, things are happening in the planet and you see something in the news and you're fifth grader or fourth grader is asking is to explain the why and how other countries had found a way to be in a position of resilience is by having these discussions and being involved.

So, we were in the Netherlands recently. And I talked to my daughter, who's the fifth grader, quite a bit about things that they were doing and how cool that, you know, you have all of these windmills. And what do you think the windmills are doing? You know, they have to see it in a tangible way and that it's something, you know, working with passive methodologies. We have sun. We have wind. You know, we have tidal.

So, that's the way I will explain it with real-life examples but always saying it's not the status quo and it's not going back to what was considered "good," but exceeding that and, you know, being better.

Abby: To bounce back and to bounce back better.

Yanel:Bounce back better.

Ramón:And I would add to look at the situation and be smart about it. So, you don't have to bounce so hard. You bounce as much as you need in a smart way but if you can avoid having to bounce a lot, you're better off. So, planning, thinking smart.

Abby: I like that. Thank you. Thank you both for coming on and talking to us today.

Yanel:Thank you.

Ramón:Thank you.

Abby: And good luck with the work in Puerto Rico and ResilientSEE and the other clean energy work that you're doing.

Yanel:Thank you.

Ramón:Thank you.

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Credits: 

This Week in Science History in Spanish: Michelle Rama-Poccia
This Week in Science History in English: Katy Love
Interviewing: Abby Figueroa
Editing in Spanish: Luis Castilla Zetina
Editing in English: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald