Although it’s been exactly five months since Hurricane Maria roared through Puerto Rico, the lacking cleanup and restoration efforts make it seem like it’s been only a week or so since the storm. Nearly one-third of Puerto Rico’s residents — over 900,000 American citizens — are still living without electricity. And while Governor Rosello and the Army Corps of Engineers estimate that 90% of customers will have their power restored by next month, not everyone is in agreement.
The hurricane left the entire island without power back in September. Access to restoration materials and conductors was limited due to its location and specific weather requirements for these materials. Following the storm, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) required 17 million conductors, 184,750 insulators, and 53,000 poles at the very least. Currently, seven microgrids and approximately 1,200 temporary generators are powering up important spots like schools and hospitals, with 5,072 transformers, 31,500 poles, and 2,613 miles of conductor cables being used across the island, according to a PREPA statement. Puerto Rico is set to receive 80 containers with extra equipment inside, and some U.S. mainland utility companies have sent teams to PR to help in the restoration efforts.
Unfortunately, the island was not as prepared for such a disaster as it could have been. PREPA has a lengthy history of financial mishaps that prohibited the utility from upgrading its 40-year-old power plants, which currently produce most of its energy from burning imported oil. An explosion of one such power plant in San Juan made the already bad situation worse, causing power outages in several towns among the island’s northern half. The president of the workers’ union at PREPA, Angel Figueroa Jaramillo, said that the explosion was likely due to “maintenance issues” rather than the impact of the hurricane itself.
Critics say these issues are indicative of a string of poor decisions that hurt the people of Puerto Rico. PREPA was already facing $9 billion in debt before Maria hit, making it the government agency with the biggest share of the island’s $72 billion public debt. But the power company’s financial issues aren’t anything new.
Francisco Lopez, a former 36-year PREPA employee and engineer-turned-energy consultant, pitched a project called Via Verde back in 2010. That project would have installed a natural gas pipeline across the island. While the U.S. was the largest producer of natural gas in 2016, extracting nearly 750 billion cubic meters of natural gas, PREPA had conducted a study and found that the project would have brought in enough revenue to pack back bondholders — who are typically responsible for funding PREPA projects through the island’s fiscal agency, AAFAF. It would have taken only about five years to do so, according to Lopez.
The quest to reduce energy usage is one that just about every country is on; our own U.S. Department of Energy believes that LED lighting has the potential to reduce American energy usage by nearly 50%. But on the mainland, residents don’t have to worry (at least, not yet) about a full-blown power catastrophe. That wasn’t the case in PR, which was in such an energy crisis that the governor at the time, Luis Fortuno, signed an executive order declaring a “state of emergency” pertaining to electric power generation. Before any public hearings could be held, the project was approved and bonds were issued.
But community members and environmentalists were not so thrilled. In the U.S., federal law has required hydrostatic testing of new natural gas pipelines since 1970 to ensure natural gas is transported safely. But the Via Verde project fell through before testing could occur due to the strong backlash from concerned citizens. Despite the fact the project never came to fruition, PREPA was still responsible for paying back the bondholders and paying the contractors who had already been hired for the $350 million idea.
This was far from the only time PREPA has found itself in hot water for its judgment calls. In situations wherein PREPA lacks resources, the typical procedure is to ask the American Public Power Association (APPA) for assistance. That had been the case with previous hurricane situations. But PREPA ended up signing a $300 million contract with a Montana-based firm called Whitefish; the contract was dissolved after questions about the company and the contract came to light. It wasn’t until October 2017 that APPA received Puerto Rico’s request for help.
Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority has subsequently filed a substantial loan request — first, for $1 billion, which was rejected by a federal judge before a $300 million loan was approved — to keep the agency running until late March. In the meantime, government officials have announced they’ll be reducing the company’s operating reserve to save $9 million per month. While customers won’t be impacted by the 450 megawatt reduction, they said, the move could destabilize one power grid that sustained heavy damage from the September storm. The $300 million loan will come out of the government’s general fund; due to Puerto Rico’s current debt restructuring process, officials needed judiciary permission to gain access to the funds.
No matter what mistakes have been made in the past, the island is doing everything it can to restore power to citizens. The Army Corp of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have estimated that anywhere from 90-95 of Puerto Rican customers could have their electricity restored by March 31. However, those who live in areas with rougher terrain could remain in the dark until mid-April or even late-May.