The stout house built into a hillside in Jayuya, a rural municipality in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, hasn’t been connected to the electrical grid for six months. Someone inside suffers from sleep apnea, and his family has relied on a noisy generator — and the gas it consumes — to power the machine he needs each night.
Outside, under the thin smile of a crescent moon, four engineers from the University of Washington complete their work. Soon a new solar/battery nanogrid will power the sleep-aid machine: no gas, no fumes, no cacophony.
Doctoral students Mareldi Ahumada Parás and Wesley Tatum secure four flexible solar panels to the roof using yellow rope. Anya Raj, ’17, feeds wires from the panels through a hole in the roof, while sophomore Hugo Pontes illuminates Raj’s efforts with his smartphone.
The team connects the panels to a battery inside the house that will be charged by tomorrow’s sun. They finish just as the mosquitoes emerge.
Getting to the heart of the damage
Ahumada, Tatum, Raj and Pontes are part of a team of UW engineers and public health scientists who are assessing the long-term impact of Puerto Rico’s power loss on the health of rural residents.
Over four days in late March 2018, the researchers crisscrossed this 39-square-mile region on single-lane switchbacks, some of which have narrowed sharply since Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory last September. Jayuya is home to the highest peaks in Puerto Rico — and 17,000 people.
Lilo Pozzo instructs Juan on using the nanogrid that will power his mother’s refrigerator.
Marvi Matos (center) presents the next day’s schedule to the UW team.
A UW team member rests after interviewing a family in Jayuya.
Mareldi Ahumada Parás helps install a donated solar/battery nanogrid.
The team visited homes and community centers, interviewing dozens of caregivers and residents who use electronic medical devices, as part of a long-term field study on the impact of power loss on public health. They also donated and installed 17 solar/battery nanogrid systems — prototypes of a sustainable, clean energy infrastructure that can buoy public health in rural areas when power grids fail.
Their work is supported by the UW’s Clean Energy Institute and the Global Innovation Fund, and it aligns with the Population Health Initiative, a University-wide effort to eliminate health disparities around the world. Like many natural disasters, Hurricane Maria had a disproportionate effect on those with the fewest resources: low- and fixed-income families, the elderly, the sick and rural residents in places like Jayuya.
Thousands have remained disconnected from the electrical grid since Maria sliced through. The UW team hopes that the storm’s lessons will help engineers develop better microgrids — like the prototypes they’ve installed — for an infrastructure that meets the needs of the most vulnerable communities.
As the team has learned in their two trips here, the current infrastructure’s shortcomings have left deeper scars than downed utility poles and darkened homes.
“It is invisible suffering,” says Lilo Pozzo, associate professor of chemical engineering, who has led both trips. “You don’t know what the situation is until you go into homes and see exactly how people are getting by.”
Uncovering the hidden harm
Blue FEMA tarps are still common, but many overt signs of storm damage have been repaired: People have cleared debris, replaced windows and patched roofs. But the UW researchers have documented myriad “hidden” adjustments that residents have made since losing power. These include eating canned and preserved food, despite the lower nutritional value, or making daily trips to a doctor’s office for refrigerated medicine.
“You adapt because you have to,” says Pozzo. “But you never achieve the normal life you had back when you had power.”
Pozzo chose Jayuya for this study because her spouse, Marvi Matos, a chemical engineer, grew up there. Like many with family ties to Puerto Rico, the couple sent supplies to the island after the hurricane. But a month after Maria, barely 20 percent of the electricity grid had been restored.
Pozzo and Matos envisioned using their expertise to unearth the storm’s impact on health and energy infrastructure. Pozzo recruited partners from the School of Public Health and the College of Engineering. They received funding for the study from the Clean Energy Institute and the Global Innovation Fund, while private donations covered the cost of the nanogrids. Contacts in Jayuya connected them with community organizers and needy families.
“This storm’s lasting impact is that it uncovered the vulnerable places of Jayuya,” says Maria Pérez, a local community organizer. “It showed us the people in our midst who didn’t have help, who were living in inhumane conditions.”
You adapt because you have to, but you never achieve the normal life you had back when you had power.
Residents share struggles and concerns with Jayuya’s municipal administrator at a community meeting held on March 20 in the central plaza.
Six months after Maria, many rural areas like Jayuya are still disconnected from the island’s electrical grid.
A home with a temporary roof in a sheltered valley of hilly Jayuya.
Yohan Min adjusts a solar panel donated by the UW team last fall.
Due in part to steep topography, Jayuya remains largely disconnected from Puerto Rico’s power grid.
Dedicated to a sustainable future
The UW team first visited Jayuya in November 2017, gathering data and donating four solar/battery systems. They expanded their goals for the March trip, buying and assembling three types of solar/battery systems. The smallest can power a miniature refrigerator for storing medical supplies like insulin, while the largest can power more complex devices, such as an oxygen concentrator or a full-size refrigerator.
“We want these systems to be simple for the patients and their caregivers,” Ahumada says. “There’s no point in donating something that they’re unable to use easily.”
The researchers also installed 11 data loggers into some of the nanogrids. These devices will record information on energy use for download during future visits.
“We can combine the information that the data loggers record with information from the interviews to design even more effective microgrids,” says Chanaka Keerthisinghe, a postdoctoral researcher in electrical engineering.
The data that the researchers collected in March, which should offer clues to more needs they can help uncover and address, awaits analysis. The team is planning another trip to Jayuya this summer. Partners in the community stand ready to assist in their efforts.
After installing their final nanogrid, the UW team passed a boy playing in front of his powerless house. He was wearing a Captain America costume and saluting passing cars. A nearby house sported the island’s flag with a handwritten message: Puerto Rico se levanta.
Puerto Rico rises.
On Aug. 14, 2018, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority announced that power restoration efforts across the island were complete. But the UW team’s work continues toward a power infrastructure that can support the most vulnerable communities — even when natural disasters strike.
Anya Raj, ‘17
Hometown: Manchester, United Kingdom
Postdoctoral Researcher, Electrical Engineering
Mareldi Ahumada Parás, ‘22
Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico
Engineer, Blue Origin
Hugo Pontes, ‘20
Hometown: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Associate Professor, Chemical Engineering and the Clean Energy Institute
Yohan Min, ‘21
Hometown: Seoul, South Korea
Professor Emeritus, Health Services
Wesley K. Tatum, ‘20
Hometown: Vancouver, Washington
UW collaboratorsDan Schwartz, Director of the Clean Energy Institute and Professor of Chemical Engineering
Charbel El Bcheraoui, Assistant Professor of Global Health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation
Yougjun Choe, Assistant Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering
Daniel Kirschen, Professor of Electrical Engineering
Jessica Kaminsky, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Originally published May 2018