When the Energy Studies Minor launched at the University of Notre Dame in 2011, it was intended to provide students with a holistic picture of renewable energy. Those in STEM were encouraged to take courses that explored aspects of renewable energy that went beyond technology, while non-STEM students were to study both the technical and non-technical sides of the program. As the program evolved, the Energy Studies Minor began offering more individualized curriculum pathways, focused on incorporating all facets – technological, economic, and political – that impact the implementation of a greener energy landscape.
To further showcase the challenges and potential of renewable energy, ND Energy introduced a new one-credit seminar course in 2019, Puerto Rico: Road Map to a Renewable Future. The goal of this course was to offer Notre Dame students an immersive experience that showed how various complexities impact the implementation of renewable energy in the real world.
Before joining the course, few students had experience with renewable energy outside of the classroom. The course allowed 12 Notre Dame students to spend a week in Puerto Rico to learn first-hand how solar energy and renewable microgrids could become a part of the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria.
Initially, when the students arrived in San Juan, they were able to experience many important sites, like the historic district of Old San Juan. However, the following day, the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón and University President Gilberto J. Marxuach Torrós, Notre Dame alumnus, hosted a Mass and meal for the students and staff on the trip. This is when Notre Dame students got their first look at what life was like on the island. Sagrado students explained how the financial crisis, political turmoil, and energy deprivation, caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017, impacted Puerto Ricans daily.
“It had been two years since the hurricane, so it was surprising how much the disaster was still affecting the island,” said Emma Kerr, junior majoring in chemical engineering, minoring in energy studies, and a Grand Challenges Scholar. “Being able to talk to someone my own age made everything so much more real.”
Following the hurricane, many Puerto Ricans were without power for up to a year; when power was available, it was unreliable. With the destruction of Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure, rural areas of the island were still recovering their electrical capabilities. Energy Studies Minor students heard from and interacted with several organizations that spoke to the current state of Puerto Rico’s energy grid and what efforts were being made to make improvements. Additionally, students talked to politicians and policy experts, including Ramón Luis Nieves, former senator in the government of Puerto Rico, as well as business leaders such as Ricardo Alvarez-Diaz, founding partner of the architecture firm Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón and alumnus of Notre Dame.
Since the island is made up of mountainous terrain dominated by steep slopes, traditional power lines are complicated to install and maintain. Casa Pueblo, a community self-management project in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, launched their “50% With Sun” project to apply solar energy as a potential solution for rural communities. Their project aims to adapt half of the island’s power to solar power generated at the point of consumption by the year 2027.
“I had no practical experience with solar power outside of my classes so it was cool to see an organization’s practical use of renewable energy being applied as a source for good,” said Kelly Moran, senior majoring in mechanical engineering, minoring in energy studies, and a leader on the Student Energy Board.
Notre Dame students spent nearly four days with Casa Pueblo learning about the organization, their community center in Adjuntas, why they were so successful at bringing solar power into the local community, and experienced what it was like to live with unreliable energy. Casa Pueblo has helped provide 14,000 solar lamps throughout small communities around Adjuntas. Additionally, they are working towards developing a dedicated solar community in Adjuntas by building a community-owned microgrid co-op with local businesses to help power equipment that is necessary for survival.
“Where the continental United States applies solar energy in terms of maximizing economic benefit, Casa Pueblo is utilizing it for resiliency and powering day-to-day activities, like dialysis machines or refrigerating medications,” said John Quinlan, 2020 Notre Dame graduate of science-business. “For Puerto Rico, it is much more about serving individual community needs and sustainable long-term solutions for the island.”
After coming back to campus, many students began working towards supporting Puerto Rico and the mission of Casa Pueblo to implement solar energy. Quinlan and other students worked on a writing letter campaign to communicate the need for financial and political support, as well as sustainable energy, on the island. Meanwhile, Kerr is currently coordinating with fellow students to help Arturo Massol Deyá, executive director of Casa Pueblo, create a solar lab for Puerto Rican children to learn about the technology side of solar energy, supported by the Let’s Share the Sun Foundation. Energy Study Minor students also worked to help educate local South Bend middle school students about Puerto Rico and their move towards energy sustainability.