It has been one year since Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico, with 155 mph winds devastating the power infrastructure, shutting down roads, and, damaging an already fragile economy with total losses estimated at $91B. More tragically, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives. Recovery continues, but it is, by no means, complete.
Six months after the storm slogged across the island, I had the opportunity to spend a week there, traveling with a group of eleven MIT Sloan EMBA students and award-winning filmmaker Bill Carter. They were there as part of their GO-Lab class, working on two projects addressing the value and viability of integrating reliable microgrid systems to improve resiliency and reliability in the delivery of power for the Puerto Rican people and economy. One team focused on the architecture, the other on regulation. Both are critical to finding a sustainable solution. Their conclusions included:
• microgrids are viable, but an unbundling of the market needs to occur
• operators must prepare to manage the inevitability of grid defection
• support is needed for providers to pilot and coordinate on microgrids
• development of a full-functioning energy system with robust deployment of microgrids requires a fully modernized grid
• an independent and empowered energy regulator is essential to ensure steady and durable energy policy and attract adequate levels of private investment
• stakeholders must break out of their silos, minimize partisan divides, and work collaboratively to reach consensus to advance their (unrecognized) shared interests in stable, long-range policies
The work of these enormously talented students was not an ivory tower exercise. They traversed the island to meet with regulators, policy makers, business owners, university leaders, and, most importantly, individuals who were (and are) still living with the day-to-day damage brought by Maria.
One team stood on the remains of one couple’s home, hearing their story of watching the storm approach and sweep through, leveling much of their town and still living without electricity a half-year later. Both were US Army veterans, the husband having served in Iraq and who was, ironically, a former line worker for Con Edison in New York. Nothing had prepared them what they were dealing with, yet they were doing so with an inspiring resolve amid devastation.
I had the opportunity to visit an older couple in a remote village who spoke of the “total, total” devastation. Their care for each other, and their community, mixed with their gratitude at having survived, was an experience that will remain with me forever.
At MIT, our motto is mens et manus – mind and hand. These GO-Lab projects are a great example of that mission. Sure, there was plenty of number crunching and analysis, deep dives into the latest technology, and application of systems design. But there was also the human element, a determination to apply skills and experience in improving lives and creating a better future. There is more work to be done in Puerto Rico, and across the globe. We look forward to the challenge.
To watch a film by Bill Carter about the GO-Lab projects in Puerto Rico, please visit click below:
Stuart Krusell is the senior director of Global Programs at the MIT Sloan School of Management.