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, 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 (HLS).
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.