At an early December listening session hosted by Puerto Rico’s federally appointed fiscal management board, University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez professor Marcel Castro Sitiriche was set to testify on the island’s education system.
Castro Sitiriche, a professor of electrical engineering, was there on behalf of the university's professors' association. As he stood among the crowd gathered at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City, he spoke about the future of his university, but he also criticized conflicts of interest he perceives among members of the fiscal board.
Rather than endure Castro Sitiriche’s remarks, he said meeting managers simply turned off his microphone.
“It’s ironic they called it a listening session,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time professors had publicly criticized the fiscal management board. But Castro Sitiriche said that incident -- which the board did not confirm -- smacks of larger issues at work in Puerto Rico. Castro Sitiriche and other Puerto Rican professors who specialize in energy and sustainability told Greentech Media they feel sidelined in conversations about the future of Puerto Rico’s grid.
The island remains in a dire energy crisis -- about 10 percent of customers still live without electricity more than five months after the devastating hurricanes -- and Governor Ricardo Rosselló plans to privatize the island's utility company and sell off its assets. The energy commission filed a lawsuit this week against the fiscal board to assert its regulatory control over the utility. At the same time, a swath of mainland and international clean energy and construction companies are pouring into Puerto Rico with promises to remake the energy system as a renewables-dominant model that could act as a test case for the rest of the globe.
It’s the “blank slate” point of view that strikes many professors as problematic, at a time when the expertise of academics who have studied Puerto Rico’s electric system for decades is more important than ever.
“Hurricane Maria brought a whole new set of stakeholders from outside, like Tesla and FEMA, or Governor Cuomo,” said Marla Pérez Lugo, an environmental sociologist at UPR-Mayagüez. “All of those are right now putting their hands into energy policy in Puerto Rico.”
Aside from a few researchers who have managed to break into talks, Pérez Lugo said, “We have not been able to get into the conversation.”
Instead, they’ve resorted to submitting comments via public processes and speaking with members of the media in hopes that their views will be disseminated or considered in policymaking.
“There is not a lot of institutional involvement of the university in policymaking at all,” said Pérez Lugo.
“In energy in particular,” added Cecilio Ortiz García, a professor at UPR-Mayaguëz that focuses on public policy and energy policy. He is also Pérez Lugo’s husband.
Professors including Pérez Lugo and Ortiz García founded the Instituto Nacional de Energía y Sostenibilidad Isleña (INESI) in 2015 to change that. A coalition of energy-focused faculty members at the island’s universities, INESI fosters collaboration among researchers, encourages policy dialogue, and promotes sustainable community energy projects.
But even with that coalition, and the comments and plans professors have submitted officially and unofficially, Pérez Lugo and Ortiz García said academics have largely gone unheard in post-Maria decision-making.
“Much more needs to be done by the territorial government to not only listen to, but also to integrate fully the concerns, insights and experiences of local energy studies scholars, such as those from INESI,” said Catalina de Onís, a rhetorical studies scholar and professor at Willamette University who recently published a journal article on energy colonialism in post-Maria Puerto Rico.
“Without these non-governmental leaders, a just transition to decentralized, renewable and sustainable energy systems that reimagine power -- both in terms of electricity and human relationships -- will not be achieved.”
Academics attribute some of their exclusion to historic precedent.
“I do not think any government, not only the present government, has really paid much attention to the impact or advice from either UPR or other academic institutions,” said Efraín O’Neill Carrillo, a professor of electrical engineering at UPR-Mayagüez.
According to Ortiz García, “extreme party cronyism” sows distrust within the government about academic research.
“If you are not a recognized member of a political party, when that party is in power, you will not be called for anything,” said Ortiz García. Castro Sitiriche said that the regional government and governor’s office is generally wary of including “independent judgment from scholars unaffiliated with parties.
But post-Maria, Ortiz García said that criticism doesn’t apply to local government. While academics believe coordination between the fiscal board, the governor, and other stakeholders is lacking, Ortiz García sees the reputation of the island’s mayors as improved.
He cited the coastal city of San Sebastián, where the municipal government formed the Pepino Power Authority, a group of resident electricians who strung wires instead of continuing to wait for federal help. And San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is largely recognized as among the most vocal advocates for Puerto Rico’s needs.
Founding INESI member Agustín Irizarry Rivera, another professor of electrical engineering at UPR-Mayagüez, said local politicians tend to take advantage of academic expertise more than do other levels of government. But he said interest is still lacking from authorities.
“This administration never touches base with the university,” he said. “All their experts must come from the [mainland] U.S. We don’t have much opportunity to work with them, despite being willing and able.”
Government has, however, been willing to work with stakeholders across the mainland United States, including utilities and clean energy companies like Tesla.
Irizarry Rivera said the steady flow of corporate interest in Puerto Rico’s plight has been the same story for decades. Willamette University's de Onís calls it “green capitalism,” and she worries it could perpetuate the colonial “outsider-knows-best” ideology that has long dogged the island.
“Every disaster is an opportunity for people to [do] business, right?” said Irizarry Rivera. “I’ve seen a lot of people coming in. They show up at our door saying they have a gift for us. You have to be wary.”
All the professors Greentech Media spoke with echoed that skepticism.
“There are all sorts of approaches. There are some savvy, more corporate-type organizations and individuals, and there are some that mix that with actual, genuine desire to help,” said Ortiz García. “In business, those things are not mutually exclusive.”
Several academics said they’re grateful for help from mainland companies, and think that many are doing good work. But they’ve also seen the island taken advantage of, and remain concerned that many newcomers aren’t taking the time to understand the social, political or geographic contexts integral to addressing the island’s needs. It doesn’t help matters that many meetings and hearings concerning the future of the island are held in New York or Washington, D.C.
Data compiled by Pérez Lugo’s students showed that most of the 22 energy projects they identified in response to Hurricane Maria were concentrated in a few areas, and there wasn’t a relationship between their location and the vulnerability of the grid. “There is no coordination among them, either,” said Pérez Lugo.
But Pérez Lugo doesn’t place all the blame on companies looking to make a buck. She said a skewed portrait from the mainland press has also contributed to opportunism and disregard for the social, political and historic landscape of Puerto Rico.
“When these groups and companies come to the island expecting a blank slate, and they find out eventually that there are forces inside the energy policy environment, it’s hard for them to overcome,” said Pérez Lugo. “But they are coming with the wrong assumptions.”
That could create unexpected challenges for the very technologies that many companies are hoping to prove.
“If you take any technology and implement it in the wrong way, without considering the social or environmental context, it can be damaging,” said O’Neill Carrillo.
The concerns don’t stem from opposition to the vision that many companies are promoting, but rather the approach and attitude.
Irizarry Rivera supports an increase in distributed resources like microgrids, but doesn't believe Puerto Rico should become a large-scale testing ground for technologies that haven’t yet been deployed at scale.
“I often wonder if this type of experiment would be taking place in Texas,” said Irizarry Rivera. “It’s not time to be experimenting with people. We need to get electricity.”
Unlike several of the professors, Irizarry Rivera said all traditional power should be restored before the government remodels the system.
Ortiz García suggested companies take cues from communities, grassroots leaders, and experts from the island rather than peddling preformed ideas.
“Not a lot of walking”
About two months before Hurricane Maria, several professors affiliated with INESI sent a letter to District Court Judge Laura Swain, who has presided over the island’s bankruptcy proceedings, outlining a vision for Puerto Rico’s energy future. In three pages, the academics presented a renewable-powered vision they had spent much of their careers studying.
The plan included distributed rooftop solar and “solar communities,” microgrids, demand response programs, and energy storage. In written testimony provided at the beginning of February to the fiscal board, a similar grouping of professors lobbied for citizen-owned generation.
“Keeping the same type of electric system and simply transferring it from public to private hands will not resolve our electricity challenges,” they wrote. “A rooftop solar-based electrical grid could leapfrog a centralized, hierarchical system to a distributed, prosumer[-oriented], transactive energy market in which public policy facilitates citizens’ investments in the electrical system mainly through rooftop solar, distributed energy storage and smart meter technology.”
Many of the proposals from academics mirror suggestions from mainland interest groups and clean energy companies. In a now infamous exchange, for instance, Tesla CEO Elon Musk proposed a remake of Puerto Rico’s grid using solar. In a tweet, Musk said: “Such a decision would be in the hands of the PR govt, PUC, any commercial stakeholders and, most importantly, the people of PR.” Later, he fleshed out his ideas in several conversations with Gov. Rosselló.
Pérez Lugo said she does see some evolution in the way the government is approaching and talking about energy. But she’s unsure concrete change will come next.
“There’s a lot of talking, but not a lot of walking in that sense,” said Pérez Lugo.
O’Neill Carrillo said in practice he sees a contradiction between discussions about privatizing the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and selling off its generation assets, and proposals to incorporate more renewables into the island’s generation mix.
“I think we have lost the perspective that electricity is a tool...that you use to develop the country you want to be in the future,” said Pérez Lugo. “We are wasting a very good opportunity to rethink, re-visualize our [island] in all aspects -- including in the energy sector.”
Whatever comes next, the professors say the process needs to be democratic, with a focus on the island’s socioeconomic development.