As we drove up the dirt road towards the head office of the Santa Isabel wind farm, our excitement was palpable. We jokingly talked about climbing to the top of a wind turbine. We lamented that none of us had been placed to intern at a wind farm where tangible renewable energy was being produced. While each of our internship projects has varied quite a bit, from researching disaster recovery policy to working to streamline a startup accelerator, this trip focused on the core mission of our Duke Engage program: promoting resilient energy infrastructure in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. What better example of seeing sustainable energy being implemented than visiting one of the three wind farms in all of Puerto Rico? When the sole on-site engineer showed us around, however, we realized how out of depth we were.
Dwarfed as we were standing under a singular wind turbine, the sheer scope of the barriers facing a transition to renewable energy hit me. The idea of taking free energy from the endless supply of wind and solar power was so much more complex in reality, requiring years of planning and millions of dollars in investment. It costs $2 million to construct a single 2-3 MW wind turbine, and the island of Puerto Rico consumes almost 6,000 kWh annually. It seems next to impossible for the entire island to switch from fossil fuels to solely renewable energy. Also, the wind turbines are cycled through for preventative maintenance and major repairs following Hurricane Maria. This means that the wind farm is never running at full capacity. Wind farms are no joke; they are multi-million dollar business operations that require constant negotiations with the distribution grid, maintenance by the manufacturers, and communication with the parent wind farm company.
Renewable energy is not something naive college students with savior complexes can swoop in to solve; there is no glamorous life of single-handedly installing a wind turbine or solar microgrid to power a rural town. Working in the energy sector can be tedious, frustrating, and seem pointless given the sobering fact that in 2019, less than 1% of all of Puerto Rico’s energy is renewable. Nevertheless, it is all the people in this industry working collectively towards a larger trend in renewables that lead to incremental infrastructure and cultural changes. Hurricane Maria has damaged the island’s energy generation and distribution capacities, revealing the immense need for change. It has led to non-profits installing energy resiliency centers for future natural disasters, people installing solar panels onto their homes, and monumental rethinking of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority infrastructure.
Looking around at my seven Duke Engage peers walking back to the van, I didn’t know whether anyone would end up working on a wind farm or even in renewable energy. But as I am writing this, I’m still hopeful that our work this summer, small and indirect though they may be, will lead to a positive step further in the trek towards a resilient future.