Undergraduate Research

Puerto Rico and the Blue Economy: Towards an Energy Independent Island

Each summer, the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) hosts undergraduate students from all over the country to participate in oceanographic research. These Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURFOs) have not only been working with GSO scientists, but they also have spent part of their time learning how to communicate this science to the public. Read on to find out what they have been up to, and why everyone should be as excited as they are about their work.

My name is Efrain J. Gerena-Rodriguez. I am in my last semester of college at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Campus. I am majoring in Biology and minoring in Political Science. During this summer I had the opportunity to participate in the SURFO Program at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. My research focused on Puerto Rico and the Blue Economy Towards an Energy Independent Island. This research was the first part of my summer where I researched how to develop the blue economy in Puerto Rico to fix the energy and financial crisis. In the second part of the summer, I analyzed data through MATLAB from the EXPORTS glider and the satellite to gain MATLAB skills. I plan on continuing my research about the Blue Economy in Puerto Rico and present it in different places.

Hurricane Maria

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, hit Puerto Rico. It was the strongest hurricane to impact the island in 85 years. Afterwards the majority of the main island and the smaller Culebra and Vieques were dark. There were areas that did not have power for over a year. So much was destroyed, and roads were blocked by fallen trees and obstacles. This, combined with the topography of the island, made fixing the main grid harder than expected. That is why it took so long to restore the power in remote areas.

Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria, from NOAA

With the grid down, people started finding new solutions to energize their homes and run their refrigerators, one of which was solar energy. Renewable energy was very popular on the island before the hurricane, but the popularity increased even more after Maria. It became so popular, in fact, that in an effort to raise revenue, the Financial Supervision Board approved a sun tax in May, 2021. This means that people with solar energy will pay 2.73 cents per kilowatt-hour extra, with a 15% increase in their bills. With this new tax, the Financial Supervision Board is trying to pay the Puerto Rico Power Authority debt and their retirement system at the expense of those who have switched to renewable energy (Debt – Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (pr.gov)) (Junta de Supervisión Fiscal aprueba nuevo impuesto al Sol en plan de Energía Eléctrica | Economía | notiuno.com). For the future of Puerto Rico and the world, it is  urgent to develop a blue economy with new renewable energy like wave energy, offshore renewable energy farms, and revoke sun taxes that can help the people of Puerto Rico.

An energy crisis made worse

For more than a decade Puerto Rico has faced a financial and energy crisis, but it was not until hurricane Maria in 2017 when everything got worse. Before the hurricane the main grid had problems, but people always had electricity, something many people were still without a year after Maria. Many small businesses were forced to close because of the lack of power and supplies. Today, in 2021 the blackouts continue, leaving hundreds of thousands without power, including hospitals and people with disabilities that need the power to survive. Because of the crisis, many Puerto Ricans have left the island looking for better opportunities and a better lifestyle in the Continental U.S.

To fix the blackouts, the government of Puerto Rico signed a 15-year contract with the private company, LUMA Energy, to distribute the energy around the archipelago and lead the Puerto Rico Electric Energy Authority towards permanent privatization. However to better improve the lives of Puerto Ricans, we are working on developing the blue economy. This would grow the local economy, recruiting people from different places and creating thousands of jobs, and make Puerto Rico an energy independent island. Not only that, but developing the blue economy in Puerto Rico opens the door to develop the blue economy in different U.S. states, U.S. territories, and countries.

   Existing Renewable energy in Puerto Rico

Cotto Laurel Solar Farm, Ponce, Puerto Rico. Picture taken by Google Earth.

Puerto Rico has a number of solar farms and the largest wind farm in the Caribbean, but they only produce 2% of the energy in the U.S. territory. Fort Buchanan, in Guaynabo City, has two wind turbines that produce 5% of the energy consumed by the fort. It also has 21,824 solar panels that produce another 60% of the fort’s energy. This means that this military base produces 65% of its energy through renewable energy.

Another famous solar farm is Cotto Laurel Solar Farm. This farm has 60,000 solar panels, and it produces energy for 5,000 houses. There is free land around the farm that can potentially be used to expand and produce more energy.

Santa Isabel Windfarm, Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico. Picture taken by Google Earth.

Santa Isabel Windfarm is the largest wind farm in the Caribbean. With 65 wind turbines, it provides energy to 30,000 houses and also leaves space to cultivate crops around the wind turbines. This windfarm offsets the CO2 equivalent of approximately 35,000 cars.

Plans for the future

Future plans to move Puerto Rico towards an energy independent island could focus on expanding or building more solar and wind farms around the island. Puerto Rico receives a good amount of solar energy throughout the year, especially between sunny April and August. The solar radiation is higher on the southern part of the main island, which means if we want to develop new solar farms, the southern part of the main island has the perfect conditions to do this.

Solar Radiation on the main island of Puerto Rico. From my summer research

Wave energy is also key in moving Puerto Rico towards an energy independent island. The Dutch company, SBM Offshore, has developed a new way of harvesting waves into energy. The SBM S3 is a structure made of rubber materials that have been used to convert wave’s energy. Energy conversion occurs through polymers (large molecules composed of  repeating parts) that act as artificial muscles that convert waves into energy, which is then relayed to the mainland and distributed from there.The SBM S3 can adapt its shape for maximum efficiency in the most extreme conditions, such as the hurricanes common to the Caribbean. This system makes no sound, which is good for the marine environment. (Sea trial in the Principality of Monaco announced for SBM Offshore’s innovative S3® Wave Energy Converter – SBM Offshore)

Overall, offshore renewable energy, like wind farms or the SBM S3, are viable options for the energy future of Puerto Rico. We will follow examples from other states, such as Rhode Island with the Block Island Wind Farm, and apply these lessons to develop renewable energy. There are many challenges to reach an Energy Independent Island, but if we work hard, we can make a better world and preserve it for the future generations.

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