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Reimagining Puerto Rico’s Energy and Food Systems Through Community Engagement and Industrial Symbiosis


Graham Transformation Grant - Graham Sustainability Institute provides up to $200,000 over 2 years for collaborative research initiatives; 1 award per year.

There is an urgent need to develop resilient energy and food systems especially in areas vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. In September 21, 2017 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Among the most affected sectors were agriculture and energy. Five months after the hurricane left all the inhabitants without electricity, more than 400,000 residents, mostly in the central mountainous region, remain without electricity. The damage to agriculture and agricultural infrastructure has been estimated to be more than $2 billions.

To address these challenges in the future, this project seeks to stimulate a new path for the sustainable development of Puerto Rico’s food and energy sector. The goal is to integrate these two sectors through an industrial symbiosis project with strong community participation.

Industrial symbiosis are systems where seemingly unrelated production units are collocated to take advantage of underused material and energy flows increasing sustainability and efficiency. The project will enhance sustainability and resilience for agricultural communities by closing the loops of effluents and by-products between agro-ecological farms and gasification for electricity production. The gasification process will use farm residues to produce syngas and electricity while the effluent biochar will be returned to the environment for soil enhancement.

The project will be developed in collaboration with a community organization with a track record in promoting sustainable development in Puerto Rico, an organization of agroecological farmers, and two universities in Puerto Rico with programs in sustainable agriculture and energy, and it will include opportunities for engaged learning for university students from Michigan and Puerto Rico.

The main activities include: 1) the participatory design and establishment of four hybrid solar/biomass gasification micro-grid systems; 2) investigations related to the sustainability of the system, including using residues to create biochar and its use and impacts on soil properties and carbon storage; and 3) workshops to train community members on the construction of gasifiers and the production and use of biochar. Project outputs will be generated in collaboration with the stakeholders and will be designed in a way that could be easily replicated in other communities in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

Through these efforts, the project aims to develop energy independence and community capacity within underserved rural communities and farms in Puerto Rico, improve understanding around energy consumption that can inform further energy independence projects, and leverage additional external funding to expand the project.


Other research team members include:

Mariangie Ramos - University of Puerto Rico-Utuado (UPR-Utuado)
Olgaly Ramos - UPR-Utuado
Javier Lugo -  UPR-Utuado
Gerson Beauchamp - University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez (UPR-Mayaguez)
Lorenzo Saleceti-Piazza - UPR-Mayaguez
Yanira Seanchez de León -  UPR-Mayaguez
Arturo Massol - Casa Pueblo
Katia Aviles - Organización Boricuá

Two Master's Projects were supported by this Graham Transformation Grant:

Goals & Objectives - First Year Master's Project, 2019:

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!!

Read a news  story about this project in Global Michigan.

Goals & Objectives - Second Year Master's Project, 2020:

To increase the energy resilience of Adjuntas after Hurricane Maria, different scenarios of solar grid expansion were modeled along with the addition of biogasifiers. The optimal configuration of microgrid that can supply electricity for the new commercial load was identifed in addition with the the lowest cost. We used:

To acheive our goal we developed a commercialized electricity load of Adjuntas, expanded the potential solar generation, developed distributed generation scenario in Adjuntas business district, characterized biomass and gas resources, estimated potential electricity production from gasifier/generator system and used HOMER Modeling for optimized microgrid scenarios using estimates and assumptions, to determine feasibility and cost of grid expansion.

The expanded grid was optimal with the addition of one more full sized generator and the elecricity cost around 8 cents/kWh.

Casa Pueblo
University of Michigan - Sustainability Without Borders
University of Michigan - Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute
Research Areas
Energy Systems
Food & Agriculture