MASTER'S PROJECT: Biomass Residue Fueled Micro-Grid for a Rural Community in Puerto Rico

Start Date: 
Jan 1, 2018
End Date: 
Apr 30, 2019
University of Michigan - Sustainability Without Borders

Goals & Objectives:

This project will develop an assessment for the use of biomass residues for electricity generation in the context of Casa Pueblo’s operation and design a least-cost micro-grid using HOMER software.  The grid will take advantage of possible use of biomass as well as solar and storage.  It will have to be designed in a participatory manner with Casa Pueblo and the community.  Finally, the project will provide a recommendation on micro-grid installation that complies with Puerto Rican policy while maximizing energy independence, resilience, and circular economy uses of the biomass residues.  

This project is part of the efforts of the Office of the Dean, SWB, and Dr. Alfaro’s and Perfecto’s Lab to respond to the unsustainable agricultural and energy situation in Puerto Rico.  The project will be the first component of a research and engagement relation seed-funded by the Office of the Dean.  The objective of this project is to engage with communities in Puerto Rico to co-develop a new vision for sustainable energy and agriculture. The project will have two main foci, ultimately culminating in a third focus that combines the first two.  The main themes will be 1) supporting the already strong movement toward developing an alternative energy system, moving away from the current dependence on fossil fuels, and towards a system based on solar, storage and biomass; 2) supporting the already strong movement toward alternative agriculture, moving both the food production sector and the coffee sector toward a sustainable framework. Finally, these two major foci will be combined in a unique program of combining micro-grid energy with sustainable agriculture, to propose that a system where small-scale agroecology and decentralized energy generation can provide a resilient, sustainable, and locally-driven solution for the food-energy nexus that can mitigate climate-change risks.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance: 

Recent destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria have shed light on Puerto Rico’s unsustainable energy grid and its nascent efforts for creating a sustainable agricultural system.  This project is a part of a larger effort to address those situations by creating small demonstration sites that can showcase the power of agroecology, sustainable systems, and the circular economy to increase sustainability and resilience.  This project will be the first step in those efforts and will directly benefit Casa Pueblo and the livelihoods of the small holder farmers they work with.  The project will seek to increase farmer well-being by diversifying their income and providing an alternative energy source.  It will also seek to close the loop between electricity and residue use by returning the remaining biochar to farmers for soil amendment.

In subsequent years, other master project teams will be organized to measure the social, economic, and environmental advantages of the circular arrangement.  This will include, fertility of soil, productivity of the farmers land, carbon captured in the soil through the biochar integration, economic benefits from diversified income to the farmers, and social benefits from independent and renewable sources of electricity.

SWB’s guidelines require that a discovery trip be carried out to ensure that the technology satisfies community expressed needs.  Further, the organization requires a 4-year plan for engagement and an appropriate plan for governance and sustainable operation.  The initial discovery trip and engagement will be carried out by Drs Perfecto, Vandermeer, and Alfaro.  The team will develop the 4-year plan for engagement and exit strategies in collaboration with their faculty advisors and the community.     

Specific Activities & Duration:

Because of the scope of this project, there is a larger team working in two smaller groups. The first sub-team will focus on the biomass assessment. This team will use engineering, systems modeling, and surveys to understand the availability of biomass residue, in particular of coffee. They will also develop an assessment of farmers willingness to participate or the incentives required for farmers to participate. The assessment will include average prices, travel times, famers’ outlook for the project, and farmers’ willingness to use biochar as a fertilizer.

The second subgroup will use survey data, engineering methods, and HOMER software to design a least cost micro-grid that maximizes circular economy opportunities and energy independence.  HOMER is an optimization software specifically designed for micro-grid development.  This team will also create a policy brief to determine the best governance practices that will be necessary for the micro-grid to comply with Puerto Rican law while maintaining benefits within the Casa Pueblo system.

The team will be required to travel to Puerto Rico and spend significant time in the community.  They will be expected to develop critical skills before travel including taking modules from the Center for Socially Engaged Design, understanding the Community Capitals Framework, and Life-Cycle Assessment procedures.  Further, a subset of the team is expected to present final results to the community at the closing of their project, probably during summer 2019.    

Integrative Approach:

This project will be integrating several methods to understand the circular economy opportunities resulting from Biomass and Biochar.  While seemingly a technical issue, the heart of the system is the farmer, and its success depends on the social preferences and agricultural practices of the farmer. Further, the governance of the micro-grid proposed, and its compliance with regulations, have to be carefully crafted to ensure sustainability and to truly improve the energy independence and the agricultural benefits. These methods require the integration of social and natural sciences, and engineering skills.


Michelle Farhat & Jon Pruitt presented a poster of this Master's Project at the National Sustainability Summit & National Extension Energy Summit (NSS + NEES) on April 17, 2019.  Their poster won two prizes -- the Best Overall Poster and the Green Award!!