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Navigating the Road to Renewable Energy Notre Dame students travel to Puerto Rico to learn how politics, economics, and culture impact sustainable energy implementation

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.

Energy Studies Minor students from the University of Notre Dame in Puerto Rico.

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.”

Notre Dame students spent the first full day in Puerto Rico in historic and tourist areas before meeting with students at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón.

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.

A mural in San Juan, Puerto Rico that translated says "One Rose for 4,645 Deaths," which references the estimated excess deaths that occurred between September 20 to December 31, 2017, due to the island's prolonged disaster following Hurricane Maria.

“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.

Notre Dame students help install a solar-powered street lamp near Adjuntas with Casa Pueblo.

“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.

Notre Dame students learn about the Casa Pueblo community center and their school, craft shop, cafe, and other projects that help support nearby small communities via Executive Director Arturo Massol Deyá.

Although many projects had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, students are still dedicated to supporting Puerto Rico’s move towards sustainable energy and their drive to improve quality of life on the island. Since the trip to Puerto Rico, ND Energy – which administers the Energy Studies Minor – has worked with Notre Dame students to create lesson plans in Spanish for use in Puerto Rico in place of the delayed plans for a solar lab.

“One of the most memorable parts of the trip was when one of the female Sagrado students, who was my age, said to me, ‘When you go home, remember us,’” said Moran. “When we came back from the trip that is something I brought with me and really motivated me to be more involved.”

Although the Energy Studies Minor is not offering the course Puerto Rico: Road Map to a Renewable Future in Fall 2020, students and the wider campus community will still have opportunities to learn about Puerto Rico and their future with renewable energy. During Notre Dame Energy Week (August 23 – 28, 2020), Álvaro Carrillo Marcano, junior majoring in accounting and political science and student president of the Puerto Rican Student Association at the University of Notre Dame, will moderate the virtual panel, “The gift of solar in Puerto Rico: philanthropy and climate change.” The panel will feature executive directors of both the Honnold Foundation and Casa Pueblo discussing the creation of the first solar microgrid co-op on the island.

“A large piece of the Energy Studies Minor is to get students thinking about energy outside of equations and, instead, help cultivate a passion for renewable energy and the fight against climate change,” said Anne Berges Pillai, education and outreach associate program director, who oversees the minor within ND Energy. “We hope that this community of students will remain close beyond graduation and support future graduates in their pursuits of energy careers.”

To learn more about the Energy Studies Minor, please visit https://energy.nd.edu/minor/.

Energy Studies Minor students towards the end of their trip to Puerto Rico.

The Center for Sustainable Energy at Notre Dame (ND Energy) supports energy-related research and education programs at the University as well as outreach within the surrounding community. Additionally, ND Energy strives to influence national and global discussions surrounding pressing energy policy concerns. To learn more about the center, please visit energy.nd.edu.

About Notre Dame Research

The University of Notre Dame is a private research and teaching university inspired by its Catholic mission. Located in South Bend, Indiana, its researchers are advancing human understanding through research, scholarship, education, and creative endeavor in order to be a repository for knowledge and a powerful means for doing good in the world. For more information, please see research.nd.edu or @UNDResearch.

Story by Brandi Wampler

Photos from ND Energy