U Students Partner With University of Puerto Rico to Explore Energy Transitions


Lead by Assistant Professor Jacob Mans (Architecture), Assistant Professor Gabe Chan (Humphrey School of Public Affairs), and Megan Voorhees (Institute on the Environment) a team of 11 University of Minnesota students spent part of their winter break studying energy transitions in Puerto Rico.

During their trip, the students attended workshops held by the U of M and the University of Puerto Rico’s National Institute on Island Energy and Sustainability (INESI) to learn more about the current ongoing projects and research being conducted. Founded in part by Professor Marla Perez-Lugo (University of Puerto Rico), and Professor Cecilio Ortiz García (University of Puerto Rico), INESI was created to improve the quality of life for Puerto Rican citizens by promoting transdisciplinary research in energy and bringing academic resources into public energy policy.

With the help of INESI, local experts, and community scientists, the students focused their work on exploring energy transitions, including rebuilding Puerto Rico’s energy grid and making it renewable and resilient.

“There is this push in the design sciences towards looking at building and infrastructure problems from different perspectives. Building connections with other academics and universities is a window of opportunity for transformative change in terms of how we look at problems,” said Ortiz García. “Universities can provide resiliency at local levels. We are in a very privileged position, we have done our homework right, we know who the stakeholders are, and we have relationships with local governments. We have the power to command resources and build effective networks,” he continued.

Ortiz García and Perez-Lugo helped the U’s students connect with different Puerto Rican communities and experts during their trip. “We have a list of communities that the students helped us examine, communities that have remarkable characteristics. We also connected them with local experts and people who have been working with those communities for a long time,” said Perez-Lugo. “If we want to keep the ball rolling and guarantee a just rebuilding, we cannot stop. Our purpose is very ambitious, to change how universities interact with communities and to use university resources to create a sustainable Puerto Rico,” she continued.

For architecture student Garrett Burnham the trip was a lesson in how to effectively collaborate with communities and local leaders to find solutions in tune with the people using them. “I was really struck by the idea of collaboration versus the traditional language of helping people on the island,” said Burnham. “When I spoke with visiting faculty from the University of Puerto Rico, it challenged a fundamental way of thinking about service learning that I had previously held and I liked that. This trip wasn’t about us coming down from the U.S. to pick the people of Puerto Rico up, it was about coming to Puerto Rico and learning from the people here and giving back to them in a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Learn more about the partnership between the University and INESI at the UMN Global Convergence Lab website.

Photo credit: Garrett Burnham

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