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In Conversation with INESI

February 22, 2019

This interview with Dr. Marla Perez-Lugo and Dr. Cecilio Ortiz Garcia, was conducted and condensed by frank news. Both are faculty at INESIINESI is the National Institute of Energy and Island Sustainability. It is a multidisciplinary and multi-campus institute of the University of Puerto Rico (INESI) that seeks to insert the university community more effectively into the public energy policy of the country and in the resolution of energy and sustainability problems using as a basis for empirical research and academic knowledge.

Let’s talk about the work you’re doing at INESI.

Dr. Pérez: INESI is the National Institute for Energy and Island Sustainability. It was created in 2014 when we realized that the university was being excluded from the process of developing a new energy policy for Puerto Rico. It was very interesting to us because we have one of the biggest programs in electrical engineering in the nation, and we have expertise in many areas that could contribute to the understanding of what energy issues in Puerto Rico are all about.

We understand them as social technical issues, in the sense that yes, they have a technical component that involves technological development and the physical infrastructure, but also energy issues have a cultural component, and a political component.

If you don't address these issues or these layers of the socio-technical system, no transition is actually possible.

We started INESI in trying to insert the University of Puerto Rico into that conversation. We have about 90 affiliates across the 11 campuses of the UPR system. Those affiliates represent more than 23 academic disciplines including psychology, law, electrical engineering, sociology, philosophy, art, natural sciences, and economists. One of our concerns was that most of the resources being included in the conversation were all concentrated in the metropolitan area of San Juan. For us, that was a metaphor for the concentration and the density of decision making in energy policy in general.

What we tried to do was de-concentrate the knowledge being used in decision making by including resources from the other campuses of the UPR system. Since then, we have a standard set approach, to not only the UPR, but also members and sectors of society that are being excluded from those processes. Community based organizations, grass roots movements.

We created the energy stakeholder forum. That includes about 30 organizations across the islands, that at the beginning of this maybe didn't perceive themselves as energy stakeholders. But Maria had a very important function in showing how energy is embedded in all aspects of life.

Community groups that were not involved in energy policy before, now realize that energy is connected to every single aspect of their life, so they are getting involved, or they want to get involved in the decision making processes.

Dr. Garcia: I want to emphasize that number one, INESI as an institute, is a platform that seeks to interconnect all of the resources Dr. Pérez was mentioning across the 11 campuses of the UPR. It is also a knowledge organization. Before the institute, the way the university was organized, actually created an unequal space for the utilization of resources or knowledge in academia, to impact energy issues in Puerto Rico. By highlighting only the work associated with the technological aspects of energy, like electrical engineering, physics, and maybe economics or law, those become the only areas that can contribute to the transformation of energy issues in Puerto Rico. INESI makes a contribution in terms of energy democracy in Puerto Rico by reframing energy issues in terms of them being not only technical, but like the professor said, socio-technical. We are re-organizing knowledge.

Scientific knowledge that's available inside the university of Puerto Rico system has a responsibility to offer those resources for the wellbeing of the people of Puerto Rico, in a way that helps Puerto Rico visualize its energy problems in a more holistic way, in a more interdisciplinary way.

We foster knowledge from outside academia to be mixed with scientific knowledge in order to gain an interdisciplinary view of energy.

Part of the reason this group exists is because you felt left out of the conversation by the government. Has there been a response from the government to your work?

Dr. Pérez: [laughter].

Has that relationship changed?

Dr. Garcia: That's an excellent question.

Dr. Pérez: After Maria, it has gotten worse. When Maria struck, and the electric system collapsed, it would make sense that we were the ones who had a lot to contribute to the rebuilding process, because we knew the system very well.

Dr. Garcia: That was a faulty logic.

Dr. Pérez: Yes, faulty logic. We approached our president, we approached our governor, we approached FEMA, we approached everybody. Systematically the resources in the UPR has been left out from the rebuilding process. What we’ve come to find out is that actors from the outside have been hired. They have been contributing more to the rebuilding process than the people who know the system best, and the people who are going to live with the consequences of that process. We have met universities from the States that have been contracted by our governor's office to do work for hundreds of thousands of dollars that have already been done by UPR resources.

As my colleague here says, it's a manufactured ignorance phenomenon, in which for many reasons, the local government is manufacturing ignorance in terms of the resources and knowledge Puerto Rico has, when talking to outside actors.

Why do you think that is?

Dr. Garcia: It's not that linear. It requires switching frameworks when you talk about governmental resources, or even institutional resources to extreme operating environments after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. It's rather difficult to draw a direct line between the intentional misrepresentation of resources that one has, or does not have, for a particular resource. You are talking about different levels of decision making converging in a particular way, that make it expedient, for certain actors on the ground like the government of Puerto Rico, to behave in a certain way. One of the behaviors we are alleging is happening, is a behavior of not being transparent, with the type of resources you might have available for you to get out of this hole.

When I say, "this hole," you have to look at Maria in the context of Puerto Rico when Maria hit. Puerto Rico was already under certain legislation, and under the fiscal control board series of attacks on our society, and on behalf of US bond holders that are looking to get repaid for their investment. You have a multiplicity of actors, that virtually established a regime where it becomes logical for the Puerto Rican government to act how it acts.

Dr. Pérez:

One thing that gets more complicated is that ideologically and culturally, the fiscal control board and the present administration have perceived and constructed the university as an expense and not as an investment.

Our constitution recognizes higher education as a societal investment. That has been an ideological fight between the constitution and the more conservative, or pro-statehood administrations. When the fiscal control board came to power, the first thing they did was to claim power over the UPR, and claim that there was too much money going into the UPR system. So the budget for the UPR has been severely cut. In fact we have experienced a budget cut of more than 50%, and some of the campuses are singled out for closing in the incoming years.

The budget cuts are increasing, and increasing, and increasing, and the tuition cost for the students are increasing as well, but not enough to cover all the UPR expenses. When you have 95% of the research being conducted in Puerto Rico, conducted in the UPR system, you are killing research, and you are killing the resources that have the knowledge to actually contribute to the betterment of Puerto Rican society.

Dr. Garcia: That's an excellent point. Hurricane Maria brought the administration to a fork in the road. "How am I going to use my research? Well I have to manufacture reality, for outsiders in order for me to be aligned with what I've been using as my policy towards the university."  It’s a policy of killing. It's a policy of closing. It's a policy of minimizing.

Dr. Pérez: Exactly.

Dr. Garcia: I cannot be highlighting those same resources out in the open, because I left myself open for questions about, "Well wait a second, aren't you killing the University of Puerto Rico?" It gets really complicated. It's in a complex policy environment. And all Maria did was serve as a catalyst for all of these different pathways, the visions of Puerto Rico's reality, to come up to the surface.

The hurricane exposed all of the ironies, and all of the conflicting narratives.

What is your mission moving forward?

Dr. Pérez: We connected with municipal governments. Instead of going to the state government, we connected with municipal governments, mostly in the mountain regions that were communities that were basically identified as low reconnection priority. After the collapse of the electrical system, it was said by authorities that communities in the mountains were less likely to be reconnected because it was not cost effective. So we drew our attention to that region. While working with mountain communities, we started assembling an electric oasis, a solar oasis. So people in the town square could recharge small electronics, and store medication in small fridges.

We realized there were more than 20 universities from the States coming to Puerto Rico to do several things. To do humanitarian work. Using the disaster as the classroom in a study abroad course, or doing quick response research, rapid grants, from foundations and other funding sources. We realized that those initiatives, although very well intentioned, were disorganized. They lacked coordination. And because there was nobody looking at the big picture, most of the universities were concentrating their efforts in less than 10 municipalities. We have 78 of them. That is a problem for several reasons. From the humanitarian standpoint, if you saturate some areas with aid, but then neglect other areas, that means not everybody is able to receive the aid you’re bringing from the outside. From the scientific perspective, if you base your science in very few, and selected case studies, your science will be faulty.

We started contacting all these universities, and realized that there were teams from the same universities on the ground that didn't know about each other. We started connecting them. We started organizing virtual workshops to give them the context, and to give them the most updated information about the state of the electrical system, because we mainly focused on electricity and sustainability. After that we focused on allowing them to talk to each other, so they could start collaborating instead of competing for spaces, money, etc. Then we invited them all to Puerto Rico for a three day workshop last June to reflect on their experiences, and identify what was wrong and what was right. What can we learn and extrapolate for future occurrences? In the climate change era, these things are going to occur more often now, and in more severe ways.

What do you think the future looks like?

Dr. Garcia: Unfortunately there's many steps, and they are all going to have to be taken at the same time. There is no recipe book for doing this. But the main thing that stands out, with regards to Puerto Rico being an example for both disaster environments and interventions by federal agencies, by universities, by multiple units of government, is that we have a long way to go in learning how to organize ourselves to do better.

We have to build relations in places we know are prone to these events, so that we do not fall prey to the manufactured ignorance we've been talking to you about.

It's life threatening as you can see, by the 2,975 lives that were estimated to be lost from Maria.

More directly for universities, even though were are not set up to be first responders, our experience with Maria has shown us that we are. We end up being first responders. We have a responsibility to look at ourselves, to get together and at least discuss what our role is as universities, in post disaster situations. This goes from how we organize our resources, to how we organize our scientific and non-scientific knowledge, and how we provide spaces of collaboration between different discipline.

Is the goal of your stakeholders forum to raise awareness but also to raise a sense of responsibility in this mission?

Dr. Garcia: Absolutely. If I was going to rank them, the stakeholder forum has been our most effective tool in fighting manufactured ignorance. Not only has it served as a sounding board, and a bulletin board for many, many, many groups who have not historically haven't been included in energy decision making, it has also allowed for an honest dialogue and an open dialogue to exist between university resources and civil society. That is very, very powerful. Especially as we aspire to higher levels of energy democracy in Puerto Rico.  

We hope the stakeholder forum internally in Puerto Rico keeps on making big strides towards energy democracy in the islands. And we want to experience that with the RISE platform that can bring a better understanding of what energy democracy involves, not only inside the island, but with other localities around the globe.

To reinforce the point – global warming and climate change are global phenomenons. The relationship between human beings and those phenomenons are local. And as local phenomena, we cannot change that, or expect that one recipe is going to fix every local experience. So it's up to us, universities around the world, to embrace this fact, and to develop new relationships between ourselves and our own communities, and share those experiences between other universities and other communities. That exchange, not only of data, and of science, but also of human relationships, and communication, is the only way that we can develop true local resolutions to what are becoming very, very, wicked problems around us. And if INESI can help in attaining that, then we have been successful.