Written by Nardy Baeza Bickel
UTUADO, Puerto Rico—Don Julio looks down the hill where he once produced pineapples, oranges, mandarins, bananas and plantains. In the shadow of these crops grew Selección Puerto Rico, the best coffee in the world.
“Before Maria, it was beautiful. It was a pleasure being here,” said the 75-year-old farmer. “It was clean. Now, it’s all bejuco. Just weeds.”
A team of researchers from the University of Michigan hope farmers like Don Julio will benefit from a project to enhance the resilience and sustainability of the agricultural sector in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The project would use a gasifier to turn coffee husks, clippings and other agricultural leftovers into fuel that will power hybrid microgrids. They expect to use the byproduct of the process, called biochar, to improve soil quality.
Lead researcher Ivette Perfecto, a Puerto Rican native and professor at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said the team envisions long-term impact on the island’s energy and agricultural landscape through the project, which received seed funding from SEAS and was recently awarded $200,000 by U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute.
In an energy desert, an oasis
“The effect of the hurricane opened people’s eyes regarding the vulnerability of an outdated energy system, the dependency on fossil fuels and the dependency on imported food,” said Perfecto, the George Willis Pack Professor of Ecology.
She said the storms decimated much of the island’s coffee, plantain and citrus crops last year, causing an estimated $2 billion in damages to Puerto Rico’s agriculture.
“There is an opportunity now to transform the energy and agricultural systems on the island into sustainable systems based on renewable energy and agroecology. And we are ready to contribute to that transformation,” she said.
Perfecto and her partner, John Vandermeer, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, originally planned to visit Puerto Rico in fall 2017. They intended to collect data for a project focusing on the conservation and biodiversity of Puerto Rico’s coffee farms within the island’s “model forest,” which supports people living and working in the forests on which their livelihoods depend.
“But about a week after we started, the hurricane happened,” Perfecto said. “People were looking for water, for food, reopening roads. There was no way we could collect data.”
Immediate plans for travel were scratched and Perfecto and Vandermeer instead joined the Puerto Rican diaspora in a campaign to provide solar lanterns to the people of Adjuntas, which was organized by Casa Pueblo. The community-based organization promotes sustainable development, and Perfecto and Vandermeer have been collaborating with it for years.
Casa Pueblo, which has relied on solar power since the 1990s, became an energy oasis for the community immediately after the hurricane, said associate executive director Arturo Massol Deyá. They were able to support an enclave of 10 houses with a solar emergency system to power small refrigerators for medicines, as well as dialysis equipment and respiratory therapy equipment.
“Since then, we’ve been changing the energy landscape in Adjuntas,” Massol Deyá said.
They added solar panels to small businesses—a barbershop, a minimarket, a warehouse—and installed 55 solar refrigerators in surrounding communities. As the hurricane season gets started, there’s a little more resilience in the community.
“We now have an oasis for food, for power, for communications, for entertainment, for economic activation everywhere in the community,” he said.
As the U-M researchers evaluated their options, Casa Pueblo became a natural ally to develop a project on sustainable energy. After many conversations, Perfecto, Vandermeer and José Alfaro, assistant professor of practice at SEAS, traveled to Adjuntas last December to meet with Casa Pueblo officials, as well as colleagues from Universidad de Puerto Rico Mayaguez, Universidad de Puerto Rico Utuado (UPRU) and Organización Boricuá, which promotes sustainable agricultural practices.
“They came with this idea that Puerto Rico not only has an abundance of sun, wind and water, but also of biomass that some call waste,” Massol Deyá said. “They said ‘that’s not waste, that’s fuel.’ That reconceptualization opened our eyes.”
Proving the concept
It’s a hot summer day at UPRU, and U-M graduate student Michelle Farhat is carefully mixing oil into a plastic tub containing coffee husks. She turns on the pelletizer machine and starts pouring the mix down the feeder, using a piece of metal to push any material that gets stuck.
Located about 65 miles from San Juan in the central mountains, this is the only UPR campus serving a primarily rural population. The yellow buildings contrast with green hills in the background as the college’s goat bleats, seeking attention.
“If they are good, they don’t break when you squeeze them,” Alfaro said, as he took a pellet, squishing it into powder with his fingers. “We need to find the right consistency.”
Farhat gets back to work, this time adding water to the mix as she writes down the ratio of water or oil as she continues to test the pellets for firmness.
This summer, a group of six U-M graduate students built a gasifier in Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor before traveling to Utuado to set up shop behind one of the buildings at UPRU. There, they planned to build a basic gasifier as a proof of concept, with the idea that, in the future, local workers would build them, creating a small industry in the region.
“The idea was to create this kind of rough gasifier that wouldn’t take too much time or too much effort to put together with materials that could hopefully be easily found here in Puerto Rico,” said Farhat, a dual-degree master’s student in sustainable systems and engineering. “It’s kind of a quick and easy way to get renewable energy at their home especially since the grid here hasn’t been super reliable.”
The process was certainly not as straightforward as they thought, said SEAS graduate student Davied Cordero, a Puerto Rican native in charge of logistics and materials for the project. It turns out that supplies were not only more expensive than on the mainland, but also harder to get.
“We’d planned for two or three days for getting materials and it took almost a month,” Cordero said. “I had to drive a lot, sometimes two hours, just for a little piece of metal that I couldn’t find anywhere nearby, or I had to drive a half an hour to get bolts at three different locations to get all the materials we actually needed.”
“It has definitely been more challenging than we expected,” Farhat said.
Feeding the beast
Admittedly, the gasifier is not much to look at. An orange 55-gallon barrel labeled with the words “Delicias y sabores”—roughly translated to “treats and flavors”—makes up the ‘reactor’ part of the gasifier.
Biomass, shredded or pelletized, is fed through the top into a fire tube. There, the biomass is reacted at high temperatures but without combustion and with low oxygen. This is when gasification takes place: carbonaceous materials are converted into carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The resulting mix is called synthesis gas, or syngas, which can be used just like propane gas to feed a generator.
The reactor is connected to a second 55-gallon orange barrel through a tube that dips into a blue water bucket for cooling. The second barrel holds the filter, made of wood chips, through which the syngas flows as its pulled by the blower on top of the barrel.
After building the gasifier, students collect biomass and, after drying the materials in a kiln they built themselves, use a pelletizer to homogenize the size and density of the material. As they try different approaches, they also incorporate material without pelletizing to be used in the gasifier. That’s when the fun really starts, Farhat said.
“It’s just been our team kind of putting all the pieces together and troubleshooting it, trying to figure out how fast you need to get the air flow going, how much oxygen we need,” said Farhat, who now is trying to figure out why gas isn’t making it from the gasifying chamber to the exhaust pipe. “I guess the process is kind of finicky and it’s pretty dependent on the temperature. It’s just been a lot of trial and error.”
The students hope to gasify enough material to produce biochar to start testing it in a greenhouse experiment and then on soil from local coffee farms. There, biochar will be added to different farmlands to measure its impact on soil properties—quantity of nutrients, carbon sequestration, structural properties—as well as soil organisms, such as earthworms, macro arthropods and microorganisms.
In another building, Javier Lugo Pérez, a professor of agroforestry biology at UPRU, is working with two of his students processing soil samples from one of the farms Perfecto and Vandermeer are studying.
The samples have been collected by setting up quadrants and taking a sample from each corner, Lugo Pérez explains as student Priscila Cintrón mixes and grinds the different soils.
“The idea is to measure the amount of carbon that the coffee farms have both above and below the ground, in the roots, stems, leaves, stem root leaf and also in the soil,” he said.
The samples will be compared later with soil enriched with the biochar produced through gasification. Additional analysis will be conducted on agroecological farms to evaluate the effect of the yields, nutrient quality of the food produced.
Model forest and coffee farms
The next day, Perfecto and Vandermeer head out to the farms with a group of ecology students. The trip from the UPRU campus up to Don Julio’s farm is only a few miles, but it takes Perfecto’s team more than an hour to find it.
After spending most of the morning going up and down a narrow paved road on Puerto Rico’s central mountains, she lets out a sigh. For the third time, Perfecto gets out of the van to ask for directions. This time, a neighbor offers to guide her by car to the lechería. Another takes her to Don Julio’s farm.
Turns out, the farm looks nothing like a farm on the mainland. Near the main entrance, now blocked by a mudslide, is his home, where breadfruit, cocoa and plantains open up to several trails: one leads to a creek, another leads to where the coffee plants, protected by fruit trees, used to grow on a steep hill.
Here is where Don Julio pauses from his arduous work to look at the 5.5 acres farm.
“Here, there was guava, which is what I use the most for shade. Up there, I had Maricao. All the Maricao was destroyed by the hurricane. The oranges suffered a lot, the bananas, the plantain,” he said, pointing out that the elevation of his farm also affected how it was impacted by the hurricane.
Like most of the land in the region, Don Julio’s farm is located within Puerto Rico’s National Model Forest, an ecological corridor that encompasses roughly a fifth of the island, interconnecting municipalities, private land and forests as “a way to conserve the forest with people in it,” Perfecto said.
After all the time spent going up and down the hill, Perfecto and her team lose no time getting to their work, the original research on biodiversity of the coffee farms located within the model forest. Because they have data from about 90 farms before the hurricane, they are also gathering data to compare it to the current status to evaluate the resistance and resilience of the coffee farms.
“Within the bosque modelo, there are many coffee farms within a gradient of management intensity,” Perfecto explained. The farms range from ‘sun coffee’ monocultures to ‘rustic coffee’ polycultures like Don Julio’s that include diversity of crops.
“We’re studying the ecosystem services that are generated along that gradient and how these systems affect biodiversity within the bosque modelo and how the forest that surrounds the farms affects biodiversity within the farms.”
One by one, members of the group climb between overgrown weeds, bananas and coffee plants and extend a 50-meter-long tape, along which they will sample coffee branches. The researchers first tag coffee plants every two meters.
Divided into three teams, they start counting the amount of beans per branch, how many are affected by coffee pests like coffee berry borer or coffee rust, and setting up baits to sample ants. One student, who is counting lizards, leads the team so they won’t scare them away.
“Are we ready?” said Perfecto, as the team made its way along the line, where the incline sometimes reaches more than 45 degrees.
“One, two, one, three,” Perfecto dictated, counting the number of coffee leaf miners on coffee leaves within a branch. Vandermeer counts the amount of vines growing over the coffee, while Chatura Vaidya, a U-M doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, rattles her own numbers to Emma Johnson, an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, who has joined the team as a volunteer.
Bees and butterflies will have to wait until the next day, as it’s already after noon and too late for them to be counted.
The team travels back to Utuado and after a short lunch break, Perfecto and Vandermeer visit Café Gran Batey, another farm they’ve been studying. The farm, Perfecto explains, consists of two main crops: coffee and “chinas,” Puerto Rican-speak for oranges.
As they walk around the farm, it’s evident the hurricane didn’t cause the same destruction here, the researchers say, pointing out the branches of the coffee trees, heavy with beans.
“This farm is pretty dense,” Perfecto said. “Orange trees are planted almost four, five meters apart, and in between all of that is the coffee. It seems that the orange trees with that low canopy could have protected the coffee from the hurricane. Because it has that management method, it seems that it survived the hurricane better.”
The researchers are quick to point out that this theory will have to be confirmed. Other factors, such as the location on the farm—Don Julio’s is on a high hill, Gran Batey is closer to the valley—could also have affected the impact of the hurricane.
Vandermeer and Perfecto, who spent nearly 20 years studying the recovery of tropical forests in Nicaragua following Hurricane Joan in 1988, are taking notes on the resilience and resistance to hurricanes of the different farms in Puerto Rico.
“With such a strong hurricane, the trees were crushed. But we found that almost all species had the ability to regrow. It is a forest, so it’s a pretty long process but the forest regenerated pretty fast,” said Vandermeer, recalling the damage inflicted in Nicaragua by Hurricane Joan. “It is a good example of a resilient system—not resistant because it was crushed, resilient because almost all the trees were resprouting after the hurricane.
“The question we have here is, ‘Is this form of resistance and resilience the same in coffee farms as in the forest? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the management style of the farm?'”
Building a network to create a grid
The views off the road from Utuado to Adjuntas, a 13-mile ride through the central mountains, are breathtaking: plantain trees and bamboos rise from the creeks and big Flamboyan trees with bright red flowers stand up in the distance.
Brightly colored homes—yellow, pink, blue—intermittently line either side of the road. A truck blows its horn as it slowly crawls up the narrow, paved road of a steep mountain, letting oncoming traffic know there will be no space for two vehicles. Smaller cars pull over wherever they can to let the truck, loaded with cinder blocks, to pass.
Beyond the beautiful landscape, reminders of Hurricane Maria are everywhere: mattresses piled up next to an empty house, bamboos torn and broken by the fierce hurricane winds, dead powerlines dangling over the road. Every now and then, a headless palm tree.
As work on the gasifier continues in Utuado, U-M researchers plan to bring a commercial model to set up at a farm near Adjuntas, and another possibly in town, to expand Casa Pueblo’s energy efforts. Using solar panels during the day, but switching to gasifier-produced energy at night, would allow them to rely less on batteries—the most expensive part of the solar power system, which also has the shortest lifespan.
“If we set it up here, we can build a microgrid to expand to the houses nearby,” said Massol Deyá, standing outside a ‘colmado,’ a micromarket already powered by Casa Pueblo’s solar panel.
He also talks about installing gasifiers in Casa Pueblo, where they could use the organization’s excess power to feed other homes and businesses; at a farm by the radio station on top of a mountain; and in other communities that might benefit from the project.
Rogelio Pérez, who is from nearby San Sebastián, is interested right away when hearing about the project. His home was washed away by Hurricane Maria along with those of his mom, three brothers, a niece and several neighbors.
He said he’s among the lucky few who, thanks to help from his employer, friends and family, was able to purchase a new home, where he lives with his mother and wife. His neighbors and other family members remain in homes that literally move everytime it rains heavily, he said.
“The project could expand to other towns that have the same problems to bring electrical power, places that are difficult to access because they’re in the mountains, like Lares, San Sebastián, Las Marías, Maricao, Yauco,” said Pérez, rattling out names as fast as he could. “And you can develop an industry and then we can create a business to export it to other countries.”
U-M’s Alfaro said he understands the sense of urgency of those living on the island, where 840,000 consumers were left without power when a tree fell in March.
“In general, sustainable energy is an important thing, but there is a specific reason for Puerto Rico that’s even more pressing,” Alfaro said. “By having this type of renewable energy and by having microgrids at the point of consumption, you’re able to create a system that is less likely to have a total failure like we saw after Maria.”
Don Julio, the farmer, said he remembers hearing stories of when the area’s river powered most of the island and would like to see the region become the center of energy development. But he fears that, unable to keep up the farm by himself and after a second year without a harvest, he might have to sell to the highest bidder. He leans on the hoe he’s using to clear up the ground, looking at his farm.
“I do wish you would have seen it then,” he said, nostalgically.