February 29, 2024

When Eduardo Lugo hears trucks rumbling at his home in southwestern Puerto Rico, there’s a moment when he wonders if that’s the sound an earthquake makes just before it hits. Lugo, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, says this type of traumatic trigger is just one of the legacies of living through years of devastating hurricanes and earthquakes.

When the power goes out, people often lose access to water, food spoils, says Lugo, “It’s like a domino effect for people. And it definitely affects people’s mental health.”

The past few years have brought disasters to the island that have killed and displaced thousands of people, and highlighted rifts of inequality that did not heal when power came back on. “When some kind of natural disaster hits Puerto Rico,” says Lugo, “it seems to highlight a problem, and how ineffective the government has been in attending to those situations.” For example, when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, cutting people off from medical care and crippling the electrical grid for months, it exacerbated child poverty in Puerto Rico.

In the wake of these disasters, researchers and residents worry that many vulnerabilities remain unaddressed—raising pressing questions about how best to strengthen the island’s infrastructure. Building truly equitable and sustainable energy will address complex issues such as colonial legacies, poverty and gentrification. But at the policy level, says Lugo, “conversations are fragmented between all these different spaces.”

After Hurricane Maria, for example, Puerto Rico’s power grid was privatized in a joint venture called LUMA, run by Houston-based Quantas Services and Canadian company ATCO. But Lugo says the majority of people who participated in a recent community survey were very dissatisfied with the lack of reliability and the cost of electricity now. “There is no way we can continue to raise the prices of energy in Puerto Rico with the amount of poverty that people are facing,” Lugo says.

Advocates say major policy decisions to restore the island’s infrastructure must be guided by the voices of community members who have lived through years of deprivation and hardship. Puerto Rico aims to have 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, but Lugo says implementing these decisions will require community feedback. “We cannot sacrifice the resilience of one area for the resilience of another,” he says. For example, well-intentioned policies for solar farms can create competition for much-needed agricultural land. Access is also unevenly distributed: Lugo says community surveys have found that cost is a major obstacle for households to install solar panels – but the recent promise of up to $440 million for rooftop solar from the Department of Energy can help thousands of families.

One of the researchers working with Lugo to develop a more comprehensive approach to climate justice in Puerto Rico is Laura Kuhl, an assistant professor at Northeastern University. After Hurricane Maria, Kuhl hoped to gain a better understanding of how existing social vulnerabilities affected which communities regained access to energy—and how long repairs took to reach others.

In some communities on the island’s southern coast, for example, Kuhl says many people with air and water pollution issues of a large coal-fired power plant. “They were also some of the hardest hit communities, with some of the longest recovery times,” says Kuhl, “and that’s certainly reflected in their historical vulnerabilities.” For some communities in mountainous areas, or far from electrical transmission lines, the wait for power to be restored stretched out for more than a year.

After Hurricane Fiona hit in 2022, Lugo says that people living in the mountains once again experienced weeks-long delays, while urban areas received more immediate attention. Workers who did the repairs often did not have the experience of working in the challenging terrain. Both Kuhl and Lugo say these environmental and economic factors must be included in planning for a more resilient grid. “These communities are the ones that need to be strengthened first,” says Lugo, “if we’re actually thinking about saving lives and energy consistency.”

In her research on climate finance and renewable energy transitions, Kuhl also focuses on how community perspectives shape conversations about energy—and who gets left out. “What is the decision-making process around climate funding? Where is it going? And who can get it? And what are the justice implications?” asked Kuhl. After the initial recovery after Hurricane Maria, Kuhl wanted to know how long-term infrastructure planning was taking shape. She wondered if policy priorities and funding would shift to solar, or if the government would continue to rely on fossil fuels.

Professor Maria Ivanova, who is the Director of the School of Policy at Northeastern University, says that understanding these kinds of existing dynamics is an essential part of helping to build sustainability. Kuhl’s research reflects the university’s goals “to transcend traditional academic boundaries,” Ivanova says. Northeastern emphasizes the responsibility of academic researchers to engage with communities and be advocates for equitable solutions at local and global levels. “We aim to produce real impact,” she says, including in her own work on addressing intractable issues such as plastic pollution.

But six years after Hurricane Maria, Kuhl says the trajectory of Puerto Rico’s energy recovery is far from certain. “It’s still unfolding,” says Kuhl, “largely because there have been enormous delays in the release of federal funding.” With the privatization of the electricity grid, the answer so far has been more investment in natural gas.

Yet those same challenges are inspiring action at the community level. Lugo says schools and community centers with solar panels have provided essential services in the wake of disasters and power outages. People can access the Internet, have kitchens with refrigerators to cook and store food, and use outlets for medical devices. “There is a lot of community empowerment and organizing around issues of energy, water, food and sustainability,” says Lugo. “People are actually taking the government out of the equation in a way and organizing to provoke change within their communities.”

Kuhl and Lugo are now collaborating on a photovoting project that aims to center these community voices—where young people in the community take photos and share stories that explore how energy affects their lives, and how they want systems to change. The project is ongoing, but Kuhl says, “the photos we received are really powerful, and tell the story of the differences and the challenges and visions of these communities in a much more compelling way than traditional academic research. ” Kuhl and Lugo hope the project will empower more Puerto Ricans to express their hopes and visions for a more just and community-driven approach to energy.

Switching to renewable energy like solar power is about more than just keeping the lights on. “We need to start creating solutions that not only fit the physical needs of communities,” says Lugo, “but also support people’s mental health.”

Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs (School of Policy) offers master’s degrees that dive into innovative, real-world explorations of our world’s most challenging climate, environmental and sustainability issues. Through a combination of experiential learning, interdisciplinary research, and cutting-edge coursework, these programs prepare you for the next step in your career, using policy to address environmental and social justice in communities around the world. Learn with us at our campuses in Boston, Arlington (Metro DC) and Oakland.

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