Mar 2, 2020

Presenting at the 2019 Appalachian State Energy Summit

This poster compares Cuban and Puerto Rican Grids after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. It is a culmination of work I did with Vittoria Energy Expedition, an educational non-profit looking at energy independence as well as my sustainability studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University.
In all of its glory, the poster.

Posing at the 2019 Appalachian State University Energy Conference. Andrew Polich in front of his poster.
Proud and exhausted all at once.
In July 2019, I got professional and presented some energy resilience insights at the Appalachian State University Energy Conference. My presentation, "A Tale of Two Storms," discussed the huge difference between recovery in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria versus recovery in Cuba after Hurricane Irma. Through visits to both of these islands with Vittoria Energy Expedition, I learned how distributed energy helped Cuba respond MUCH quicker than Puerto Rico where centralized energy caused the worst blackout in U.S. history, lasting for almost a YEAR in some places. An important insight into the future of the planet and renewable energy!

I even got to moderate the Campus Initiatives in Sustainability working group. The discussions were enriching and challenging!

Islands are excellent case studies for disaster mitigation. Around storms, they are isolated from larger supply lines of fuel, food, and water. In the fall of 2017, the Caribbean saw two massive back-to-back storms. Hurricanes Irma and Maria were both Category 5 and affected densely populated areas. But there were stark contrasts in preparedness and response, especially with electricity. Because Puerto Rico fell short on both fronts, Hurricane Maria took a toll of around $100 billion and 3,000 lives--magnitudes more than what Irma was for Cuba.  

View of poster competition at the 2019 Appalachian State University Energy Conference.
I'm in a grey suit. Source.

Two classmates and I explored the two storms through maps. We looked at storm paths, precipitation, wind speeds, and Doppler radar images. What shocked us was how similar the storm maps were. One of the most compelling maps we produced used before-and-after night time satellite imagery. We learned how to use Google Earth Engine to show how steady the lights were in the capital cities (Havana and San Juan). Those findings are on slide 8 of this older post.

Andrew Polich presenting his poster to a fellow participant (center) and Chelsea Loftus (left) at the 2019 Appalachian State Energy Summit.
Presenting to fellow participants and the general public.
With such similar storms, how could the costs be so different? Why was Puerto Rico’s power restoration timeline so much longer than Cuba’s? We found that it came down to distributed energy. After a devastating storm a decade earlier, Cuba decided to transition from centralized electricity to decentralized (or distributed). The government quickly installed diesel-electric generators all across the island. Even if transmission lines were severed, power losses would be localized and limited. 

Puerto Rico’s electricity was maintained by the utility, PREPA. The central grid was destroyed during the storm and electricity was out for many months. Transmission lines were cut and power generation facilities rendered inoperable. The slow restoration of electricity proved to be more deadly than the storm’s primary hit.

With a team at Vittoria Energy Expedition (an educational non-profit), I traveled to both Puerto Rico and Cuba to learn more about the different electricity systems. I interviewed power providers, communities, and government officials. I documented and mapped out what I learned.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Andrew Polich of Lenoir-Rhyne University talking about the decentralized Cuban grid system.
Chatting with Amory Lovins of
the Rocky Mountain Institute.
On both islands, I learned how the people came to make do with limited equipment and use any resources at their disposal. But it was this ingenuity matched with effective government programs that made Cuba weathering Irma a success story. Neighboring islands and coastal communities can learn a lot from the King of the Caribbean in preparedness, resilience, and sustainability. 

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