Puerto Rico: Clean Energy Solutions for Public Health

Background | Mission Statement | People | In the Media | November 2017March 2018 | Support


Chanaka Keerthisinghe, Erin Palmisano, Mareldi Ahumada, Wes Tatum, Marvi Matos, Professor Lilo Pozzo, Lauren Kang, and Chester Pham in Jayuya, Puerto Rico.


Just days after Hurricane Maria’s landfall in September 2017, Puerto Rico native and UW professor of chemical engineering Lilo Pozzo initiated an effort to help the island’s most vulnerable citizens recover. The rural mountain municipality of Jayuya — the hometown of her wife, Marvi Matos — was without grid-based power for months, a potentially life-threatening scenario for members of the community with medical needs that require access to electricity.

Pozzo built a coalition of faculty experts including Dan Schwartz, director of the Clean Energy Institute (CEI) and professor of chemical engineering, Charbel El Bcheraoui, assistant professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), Youngjun Choe, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, Daniel Kirschen, professor of electrical engineering, and Jessica Kaminsky, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, with the goal of preparing student groups for a series of trips to Jayuya. The UW groups will help Jayuya meet immediate energy supply needs and will eventually propose engineering solutions to minimize detrimental health impacts from future power outages. The ultimate goal is to create a scalable model for increasing energy resiliency across rural Puerto Rico.

In November 2017, Pozzo and the first group of students made their way to Jayuya, where they conducted qualitative interviews of 28 patients and logged each of their electrically-powered medical devices. The group also installed solar-powered battery systems to power fridges for insulin storage and an orthopedic bed for a bedridden patient. These single-building, single-source systems are also known as “nanogrids”, a term which is best understood in comparison to larger-scale “microgrids” that use multiple energy sources to power a military base, a college campus, or a small town. Read more about the November trip

Lauren Kang and Wes Tatum with a recently-installed solar panel

In winter 2018, the team was hard at work transcribing and translating interviews and compiling quantitative data for a report detailing best practices and possible solutions. The UW initiative also established a partnership with Professor George Roe and Seattle Pacific University. Upper-level undergraduates in Roe’s “Appropriate and Sustainable Engineering” course used data and qualitative information from the November trip to design modular, transportable, and self-contained generator-battery systems.

A second group returned to Jayuya in March 2018 to follow up on their research efforts and install 17 more solar-battery nanogrids. Read more about the March trip

The team returned to Jayuya once more in the summer of 2018 to obtain the data collected by the data loggers in the installed PV-battery systems. They also administered satisfactions surveys to gauge user experience and perceptions of solar energy as a form of emergency energy supply, and analyzed both of these data sets for a November 2018 article in IEEE Power and Energy Magazine.

Read more about the summer 2018 trip

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Mission Statement

This initiative was formulated as a timely response to studying adverse health effects of Hurricane Maria and to propose clean-energy solutions aiming to minimize detrimental patient outcomes in future emergency events. In addition to producing outcomes that bring concrete value and support to a community in need, this initiative will provide meaningful scholarly and globally-conscious experience to University of Washington students, and create critical linkages between the clean energy and population health initiatives on campus.

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In the Media

The New York Times: Rethinking Electric Power, Prompted By Politics and Disaster (Dec. 11, 2017)

More: King 5 News (video)Washington Examiner | Security Management

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November 2017

The initiative’s first trip to Puerto Rico took place in November 2017. The UW contingent included chemical engineering professor Lilo Pozzo, electrical engineering Ph.D. student Mareldi Ahumada, electrical engineering postdoc Chanaka Keerthisinghe, chemistry Ph.D. student Lauren Kang, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) researcher Erin Palmisano, chemical engineering major Chester Pham ’18, and materials science & engineering Ph.D. student Wesley Tatum. Read more about the participants

After a short stay in the capitol, San Juan, the group made their way to Jayuya. There, they met with Jayuya’s mayor, the director of water distribution, CDC doctors assigned to the central clinic, the directors of assisted and non-assisted living, and other community leaders in order to determine a list of people that were bedridden, their needs, and if they were reliant on power for their health.

Tatum described his initial reaction to the infrastructural damage: “The problem was much bigger than we thought. It’s really at a governmental scale, because the whole island runs on a centralized grid, and rebuilding efforts had largely been focused on population centers.”

The UW team conducted qualitative interviews of 28 patients and logged each of their electrically-powered medical devices, and also installed solar-powered battery systems to power fridges for insulin storage and an orthopedic bed for a bedridden patient. Their goal is to distill the data into a written report detailing possible solutions and best practices. They will return to Jayuya in March 2018.

Ahumada, Keerthisinghe, and Kang with recently-installed solar cells on the roof of the community center

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March 2018

Over UW’s spring break, Pozzo, Matos, Ahumada, Keerthisinghe, and Tatum returned to Jayuya, accompanied by four new members: chemical engineering major Hugo Pontes ’20, construction management graduate student Yohan Min, aeronautical & astronautical engineering graduate Anya Raj ’17,  and Health Services Research Professor Emeritus Michael Chapko. Read more about the participants

The team interviewed 25 families and installed 17 small-scale solar-battery systems. Five of the systems were commercially available, while the rest were designed and built by the team at UW from commercial components. Eleven of the systems have the capacity to track electrical loads (energy consumption), enabling the UW team to analyze how people use the systems during power outages.

The team also followed up on nanogrid installations from the November trip. Each recipient mentioned that the systems had been of great help during the emergency. Two of the systems, installed to power mini-fridges for insulin storage, worked for months until the families recovered grid power. The third system had been installed in a remote community center, to power a communal refrigerator for insulin storage. Tesla has since installed a solar-battery system that enables operation of the rest of the facility, while leaving the original system in place.

The last system was installed for a bedridden patient, to power an inflatable orthopedic mattress to prevent ulcers. The family had continued to use the system, in spite of the fact that they had recently recovered electricity. As the family explained to the UW team, running a traditional generator to power the mattress for the entire night is costly and leads to deterioration.

In April 2018, Puerto Rico’s central grid was damaged during recovery efforts, causing an island-wide power outage. Decentralized solutions, like the solar-battery systems installed by the UW team, are resistant to grid blackouts and can save lives in these situations.

“Grid by grid”: UW News on the March Trip

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Travel funds were provided by CEI and the UW Office of Global Affairs’ Global Innovation Fund. The solar-powered battery devices installed in March 2018 were purchased thanks to generous support from the Clean Energy Group through its Resilient Power Project, as well as numerous individual donors.

If you would like to support these efforts, make a donation to the Puerto Rico Energy Recovery Fund.

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