Students in a hands-on infrastructure class at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy are pushing government officials in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. to promote rooftop solar energy and have developed a policy proposal that promotes the use of solar energy in the most vulnerable communities.
Puerto Ricans have suffered constant and prolonged power outages since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Hurricane Fiona last month was another reminder that power problems continue. The students who participated in the course concluded that rooftop solar energy must be a key part of the electrical infrastructure. The question is how.
“The proposal is a product of our annual graduate infrastructure practicum where we present students with a real-world infrastructure challenge,” said John Foote, lecturer in the MPA program. “Puerto Rico is an ideal place to study infrastructure because of the critical needs it has in energy, transportation, water and communications. Our students really want to help. This is one way I can make a difference now and, as rooftop solar is adopted, for years to come.”
Rooftop solar energy involves installing a photovoltaic system on the roof of a house as a primary or additional source of electricity. There may be financial, regulatory or information barriers to its installation and maintenance.
The project began in the spring when 11 infrastructure graduate students met weekly to learn about renewable energy. They then spent spring break in Puerto Rico, meeting with public officials, non-profit organizations and residents. A key ally in the effort was Ingrid Vila-Biaggi ’96, an environmental engineer, co-founder and president of CAMBIO, a Puerto Rico-based nonprofit that designs, promotes, and implements sustainable policies and practices.
Over the summer, the students produced a final report that they are now sharing with CAMBIO, government and utility leaders.
The report defines the objectives of the project:
The students reviewed funding sources and found that grants are available under a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program that could help as many as 379,000 households purchase rooftop solar and storage systems. An existing network of neighborhood community development financial institutions would promote the door-to-door program, administer FEMA funds, and provide low-interest loans to homeowners in the event there is a gap between the cost of the system and the FEMA amount. assign.
The next steps involve a number of agencies and offices in Puerto Rico, but Cornell students have given them a roadmap toward a less vulnerable and more sustainable energy future. “Now with the current events surrounding Puerto Rico stemming from the latest hurricane, I hope our work together encourages and inspires both conversation and action,” said Master of Regional Planning student Sarah Carillo, one of the project’s participants.
Jim Hanchett is Associate Dean for Communications at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.