MN students were in Puerto Rico learning about energy resilience when a quake knocked the power out

A solar trailer from the Footprint Project.
A solar trailer from the Footprint Project allowed residents of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to charge their phones and other necessities hours after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit the island.
Courtesy of University of Minnesota

When a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rattled Puerto Rico in the early morning of Jan. 7, a group of University of Minnesota students and faculty were shaken out of bed. They were on the island to study how it was adapting its power grid in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Parts of the island were without power for a full year after the 2017 storm.

Last month’s earthquake cut power again, giving the students a front-row seat to the kind of scenarios they’ll be planning for as future regional planners and civic leaders. The frequency and intensity of disasters such as storms, fires and flooding are expected to worsen under climate change.

“It's one thing to think about climate change and think about the impacts from afar, or to think about sustainability,” graduate student Shannon Evans Engstrom said. “But to actually see the impact it has on people's lives, or to see them really thinking about how they're going to have move now because they can't go back to their apartments on the 10th floor or they’re not able to go to school because they can't trust the structure of their schools right now [was life-changing].”

Engstrom and her classmates worked with Minnesota-based Footprint Project to deploy portable solar systems so people could charge their cellphones and other necessities after the earthquake. They also met with experts to learn how Puerto Rico was rolling out microgrids and other innovations.

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Microgrids can detach from the overall power grid if it goes down in an emergency and continue powering nearby customers. After the earthquake, lights in areas that had microgrids came on much faster than in areas without them, said assistant professor Gabe Chan.

Chan directs the university’s Science, Technology and Environmental Policy masters program and said Puerto Rico offers important lessons for cities and states.

“Hurricane Maria had between 3,000 and 5,000 deaths, and the majority of those deaths were attributed to a lack of energy,” he said. “And so as we think about our energy system transitioning, we absolutely need to care about the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, but we also need to think about the vulnerability of our energy system to climate impacts.”

Chan and Engstrom talked more about this on Climate Cast. Click play on the audio player above to hear more.