Energy Grows in Trees
By Mark Betancourt, MBA '24
In the spring of my first year at Johnson I enrolled in the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion. Because of my interest in engineering and renewable energy, I requested to be placed on a project involving renewable energy solutions and joined a team of peers, Saikant Kamble M.Eng ’23, Ka Wa Sharon Lau MBA ’24, and Kevin Grathwohl MBA ’24 to work with PFS, a startup based in Puerto Rico. Our task was to conduct a market feasibility analysis for generating electricity from waste woody-biomass on the island.
Potential Business Opportunity
The company’s founders first came up with this idea after hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated Puerto Rico’s energy and waste management infrastructure in 2017. The storm crippled the island’s energy grid, leading to the longest blackout in United States history. To make matters worse, the storms knocked down over 2.5 million trees on the island. To quickly restore the island’s infrastructure and economy, the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources ordered that all downed trees be sent to landfills, which drastically shortened the usable life of the landfills on the island. Now, in 2023, the company looks to enhance energy resiliency through renewables on the island while providing a productive use for the leftover biomass. I was excited to help brainstorm solutions for such pressing issues in sustainability.
To better understand the situation and potential business opportunity, our team traveled to Puerto Rico during the spring semester to conduct interviews with local business owners and stakeholders — a trip made possible by Cornell’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise.
On a cold Thursday morning, our team met with Boris Corujo, a Cornell alumnus from the class of 1987 and the President and Founder of PFS Energy, at the Ithaca airport hours before sunrise. After a slight delay for wing de-icing, the plane took off and we were on our way. We landed at the San Juan International Airport that afternoon and drove with one of the biomass-energy-company’s founders to lunch for an introductory meeting. After lunch, Boris gave us a tour of San Juan and brought us to our Airbnb.
Friday morning, we met our first interviewee, the owner of a private landscaping company on the island. We spoke at length with the owner about the amount of organic waste his company produced every day and sent to the island’s landfills, and I was surprised to hear how much organic waste is being collected on the island every day.
Next, we visited a bio-digester plant that was harvesting methane from food waste on the island. It was interesting to see the plant make energy-storing gas out of waste that would have otherwise just added to the island’s landfills. Our day ended with a visit to a landfill on the island where the operators were harvesting methane emissions from the waste fill to generate electricity for the energy grid. Our team met with the operators of the landfill and discussed their WTE (waste-to-energy) electricity generation plant. Through these conversations, our eyes were widened to the issues Puerto Rico was facing and how creative solutions are being implemented to solve them.
Saturday was just as packed as the day before. We started the day by driving though winding roads in the tall mountains on the south side of the island. There, we were introduced to a swine farmer who harvested the methane emissions from swine manure. With translation help from Boris, our team was able to learn a vast amount about the energy needs of rural farmers in Puerto Rico and the difficulties they face.
Our last stop for the trip was with a company that specialized in re-purposing downed hardwoods throughout the island. Through conversations with this company’s owners, we were excited to learn that the island’s Department of Natural Resources is actively looking to work with entities willing to re-purpose the waste it collects every day.
Wrapping Up Our Visit
By the end of our interviews, we were completely exhausted. Luckily, we were in town for Saturday night’s Puerto Rico – Mexico game in the World Baseball Classic, a single elimination tournament.
It seemed that everyone in San Juan was out on the street that night, watching the game unfold on massive projected screens displayed on the sides of buildings. Even though the Puerto Rican team was not able to take home a victory that night, our team was able to see the best of San Juan’s night life! We left the island the next morning with new knowledge, new experiences, and new memories.
Looking back on my trip to Puerto Rico, I realized the value of conducting in-person interviews and getting on-the-ground knowledge – our team learned a lot about renewable energy solutions in a short amount of time. We saw first-hand the importance of traveling to work sites and research areas — it is critical to see places and meet people in-person to fully understand the issues they are trying to solve.
I want to thank my fellow teammates for putting in countless hours on the project this past semester. I also want to thank the founders of the biomass energy start-up who hosted us in Puerto Rico for allowing us to dive deep into an exciting solution in the renewable energy industry. Lastly, I want to thank Professor Mark Milstein, Monica Touesnard, and Abigail Christman of Cornell’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise for making this all possible. I look forward to applying the skills I learned from the SGE Immersion project in my career!
About Mark Betancourt, MBA ’24
Mark Betancourt is an MBA Candidate ‘24 at the Johnson Graduate School of Management. He is the President of the Cornell Energy Club and is passionate about renewable energy and combating climate change. In 2016, he graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY. Afterwards, Mark worked as a marine engineer and a naval officer onboard large merchant and naval shipping vessels around the world. When not working or studying, Mark likes to restore old cars and Airstreams, using the latter to ski and mountain bike throughout the country.