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Biomass Residue Fueled Micro-Grid for a Rural Community in Puerto Rico

Client Organization: 
Sustainability Without Borders (SWB)
Client is confirmed: 
Project Location : 
Ann Arbor, MI, USA & Puerto Rico
Secondary Client Organization: 
Casa Pueblo
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives: 

This project will develop an assessment for the use of biomass residues for electricity generation in the context of Casa Pueblo’s operation and design a least-cost micro-grid using HOMER software.  The grid will take advantage of possible use of biomass as well as solar and storage.  It will have to be designed in a participatory manner with Casa Pueblo and the community.  Finally, the project will provide a recommendation on micro-grid installation that complies with Puerto Rican policy while maximizing energy independence, resilience, and circular economy uses of the biomass residues.   

This project is part of the efforts of the Office of the Dean, SWB, and Dr. Alfaro’s and Perfecto’s Lab to respond to the unsustainable agricultural and energy situation in Puerto Rico.  The project will be the first component of a research and engagement relation seed-funded by the Office of the Dean.  The objective of this project is to engage with communities in Puerto Rico to co-develop a new vision for sustainable energy and agriculture. The project will have two main foci, ultimately culminating in a third focus that combines the first two.  The main themes will be 1) supporting the already strong movement toward developing an alternative energy system, moving away from the current dependence on fossil fuels, and towards a system based on solar, storage and biomass; 2) supporting the already strong movement toward alternative agriculture, moving both the food production sector and the coffee sector toward a sustainable framework. Finally, these two major foci will be combined in a unique program of combining micro-grid energy with sustainable agriculture, to propose that a system where small-scale agroecology and decentralized energy generation can provide a resilient, sustainable, and locally-driven solution for the food-energy nexus that can mitigate climate-change risks.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance:  

Recent destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria have shed light on Puerto Rico’s unsustainable energy grid and its nascent efforts for creating a sustainable agricultural system.  This project is a part of a larger effort to address those situations by creating small demonstration sites that can showcase the power of agroecology, sustainable systems, and the circular economy to increase sustainability and resilience.  This project will be the first step in those efforts and will directly benefit Casa Pueblo and the livelihoods of the small holder farmers they work with.  The project will seek to increase farmer well-being by diversifying their income and providing an alternative energy source.  It will also seek to close the loop between electricity and residue use by returning the remaining biochar to farmers for soil amendment. 

In subsequent years, other master project teams will be organized to measure the social, economic, and environmental advantages of the circular arrangement.  This will include, fertility of soil, productivity of the farmers land, carbon captured in the soil through the biochar integration, economic benefits from diversified income to the farmers, and social benefits from independent and renewable sources of electricity. 

SWB’s guidelines require that a discovery trip be carried out to ensure that the technology satisfies community expressed needs.  Further, the organization requires a 4-year plan for engagement and an appropriate plan for governance and sustainable operation.  The initial discovery trip and engagement will be carried out by Drs Perfecto, Vandermeer, and Alfaro.  The team will develop the 4-year plan for engagement and exit strategies in collaboration with their faculty advisors and the community.      

Specific Activities & Duration: 

Because of the scope of this project we expect a larger team working in two smaller groups will be necessary.  We hope the team will be 6-8 people.  The first sub-team will focus on the biomass assessment.  This team will use engineering, systems modeling, and surveys to understand the availability of biomass residue, in particular of coffee.  They will also develop an assessment of farmers willingness to participate or the incentives required for farmers to participate.  The assessment will include average prices, travel times, famers’ outlook for the project, and farmers’ willingness to use biochar as a fertilizer.

The second subgroup will use survey data, engineering methods, and HOMER software to design a least cost micro-grid that maximizes circular economy opportunities and energy independence.  HOMER is an optimization software specifically designed for micro-grid development.  This team will also create a policy brief to determine the best governance practices that will be necessary for the micro-grid to comply with Puerto Rican law while maintaining benefits within the Casa Pueblo system. 

The team will be required to travel to Puerto Rico and spend significant time in the community.  They will be expected to develop critical skills before travel including taking modules from the Center for Socially Engaged Design, understanding the Community Capitals Framework, and Life-Cycle Assessment procedures.  Further, a subset of the team is expected to present final results to the community at the closing of their project, probably during summer 2019.     

Integrative Approach:

This project will be integrating several methods to understand the circular economy opportunities resulting from Biomass and Biochar.  While seemingly a technical issue, the heart of the system is the farmer, and its success depends on the social preferences and agricultural practices of the farmer.  Further, the governance of the micro-grid proposed, and its compliance with regulations, have to be carefully crafted to ensure sustainability and to truly improve the energy independence and the agricultural benefits.  These methods require the integration of social and natural sciences, and engineering skills. 

Skills/Expertise Needed: 
Secondary Client Confirmed: 
SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Role for each program area: 

Conservation Ecology: Students will be needed to understand the agricultural practices and agroecology procedures.

Sustainable Systems: Students will be expected to carry out system modeling and the HOMER analysis.

Environmental Policy and Planning: Students will need to develop a policy brief and governance recommendations.

Environmental Justice: Students will be expected to support the development of a governance plan. 

Environmental Informatics: Significant GIS work is expected that should be addressed by Environmental Informatics student. 

Behavior, Education, and Communication: Students will be necessary to fully engage with the community and understand the survey deployment. 

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

Students will be able to engage in community development and understand how to work with agricultural communities.  The project will provide opportunities to practice Spanish and network with local NGO’s.  Systems analysis skills, including the modeling of micro-grids through HOMER will be key assets that can benefit a student’s resume.  Students will also be taking modules on human-centered design.     

Funding Sources: 

The office of the Dean is providing seed funding for this project.      

Identify expected products/deliverables: 

Deliverables: 

 

  1. The team will deliver a full report that should include:
  2. A survey of farmers practices and products
  3. An assessment of biomass residue availability
  4. Incentives required for farmers participation
  5. Farmers receptiveness toward the project
  6. Governance recommendations
  7. Community demand curve and expected growth
  8. Least cost micro-grid design
  9. Expected flows of biomass and biochar and associated economic flows
  10. Business outlook for micro-grid to operate sustainably
  11. Recommendations for future work

 

Implementation:

As mentioned, faculty advisors, SWB, and Casa Pueblo will use the report as a launching point towards implementation of the micro-grid.  Contractors for micro-grid implementation will be sought, assuming promising results are shown.  Faculty members and SWB will integrate this work to the larger research project being developed.  

Additional Faculty Advisor(s) and Department(s): 
John Vandermeer
Contact full name: 
Jose Alfaro
Job title: 
Assistant Professor of Environmental Practice
City: 
Ann Arbor
State or Country: 
MI, USA
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Jose Alfaro, Ivette Perfecto
Contact Phone: 
734-882-8138
Advisor Confirmed: 
Contact e-mail: 
Additional Faculty Advisor(s) Confirmed: 
Contact information: 
SNRE alum
U-M faculty member
Our Organization has been an SNRE master's project client in a previous year
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Davied Cordero
  • Michelle Farhat 
  • Bret Fickes 
  • Gabriela Porras 
  • Selim Sardag 
  • Princejonathan Pruitt 
Project Status: 
In Progress