Power outages plague Puerto Rico despite LUMA takeover

AGUADILLA, PR – Four years after Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico’s power grid in ruins and the entire island in darkness, residents expected their fragile power system to be stronger now. Instead, unreliable electricity remains frustrating, hampering economic development and daily life.

In June, a private consortium known as LUMA Energy took over the transmission and distribution of electricity. And yet the situation only got worse. The increase in demand in August and September led to blackouts that affected the majority of the island’s 1.5 million electricity customers.

Last week, several thousand people marched along a main highway in San Juan, the capital, blocking traffic with the latest in a series of protests against the seemingly endless electricity problems plaguing the island. .

“People can’t take it anymore,” said Iris Delia Matos Rivera, 69, a former employee of the island’s electricity utility who attended a recent protest.

Many Puerto Ricans have diabetes and need refrigerated insulin to survive. The coronavirus pandemic has also put some people on respiratory therapy requiring home power supply for oxygen machines. Some Puerto Ricans are still studying or working at home.

Ashlee Vega, who lives in northwest Puerto Rico, said the power fluctuations this month were so imperceptible that it took her several hours to realize her devices were not working properly. The new refrigerator she bought in February – to replace an old one that had died out after years of volatile surges – was fried.

His mother lent him a large cooler. In went the milk and the eggs, the ham and the cheese. Spoiled vegetables. Twice a day for the next five days, until a repairman ran her refrigerator, she rushed to gas stations to get ice. There wasn’t much to do at first, as a wave of power outages had also left her neighbors scrambling.

“I can’t let this happen again,” said Ms. Vega, 31, a military veteran who returned to Aguadilla, her hometown, Colorado last year with her 7-year-old son Sebastián. “It’s not something that should be happening. We are in 2021. We have internet on our TV. Why don’t we have electricity?

Behind the failures lie the same issues that have plagued Puerto Rico’s network for decades: aging equipment, lack of maintenance, and mismanagement and corruption of an inefficient system.

The bankrupt utility, which is still in charge of power generation, declared a state of emergency this month in an attempt to speed up critical repairs to its ailing power plants. Electricity prices, which are higher in Puerto Rico than in almost all of the 50 states, have continued to rise, although service has deteriorated.

The privatization of transmission and distribution – the part of the power system most damaged by Hurricane Maria – brought new challenges, including public mistrust and the retirement or redeployment of experienced linemen who knew how to handle obsolete infrastructure on the island.

The system is so fragile that a power station recently went offline because sargassum – algae – blocked its filters.

The inability of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, and the new Canada-U.S. Private consortium to provide consistent electricity has led to weeks of finger-pointing, tense legislative hearings and growing protests. from the tired residents who ousted the governor. two years ago taking to the streets.

“This LUMA contract must be thrown in the trash! chanted the protesters on Friday.

Crews repaired Puerto Rico’s grid with $ 3.2 billion in emergency repairs after Hurricane Maria, which shredded the island’s power lines as a Category 4 storm in September 2017. Congress earmarked about $ 10 billion through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild the system. These projects will be subcontracted by the new consortium, with the aim of restoring the network as it was before the storm, with some modernization.

This approach, while consistent with the way the federal government deals with disasters, is short-sighted and unsustainable, said Agustín A. Irizarry, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico who has promoted a distribution plan of solar power on residential and commercial roof panels. and storage batteries.

“People are doing it themselves, without the government intervening,” he said. “Ultimately, there will be no more customers for the electricity network because they will not have taken the trouble to modernize the network.

Last week, the government of Puerto Rico announced the first disbursement of federal reconstruction funds: $ 7.1 million.

Puerto Rico last year awarded LUMA a 15-year contract to operate the transmission and distribution system and manage its reconstruction, arguing that a private company would do better than PREPA, one of the two largest utilities in electricity in the United States. While PREPA is bankrupt – its debt is $ 9 billion – Puerto Rico pays the new company a fixed annual fee of $ 115 million.

Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi said the new contract came with a promise to reduce the number and duration of blackouts. But the contract drew criticism from the start, with some analysts noting that the company would not face penalties if it did not find savings and lower rates.

LUMA took over in June, with senior officials saying they were prepared for a Category 2 hurricane. (None have hit the island this year.) Almost immediately, huge blackouts began. Customers have found the company slow to respond to their complaints. Some residents have tried to repair the network themselves, prompting the utility to warn of such dangerous attempts.

Wayne Stensby, chief executive of LUMA, said in an interview in June that the company rolled out a new website and app to provide better customer service, opened call centers on the island, and planned a series of ‘other improvements, including upgrading the vehicle fleet.

He blamed the first wave of problems on a backlog of outages, a cyberattack and resistance from some PREPA workers before the June 1 transfer, including a blockade to prevent LUMA from accessing certain equipment. Some power lines, he added, were still blocked by makeshift repairs carried out after the hurricane, in which crews restored power by tying the lines not to poles but to trees.

Mr Stensby told a congressional hearing this month that repairing the tattered system would take time. The company has cleared half of the backlog of solar power applications – some dating back two years, he said – and has a batch of 65 initial projects worth around 2.8 billion dollars that she hopes to start next year.

“Puerto Rico’s electricity system is arguably the worst in the United States and has been for a very long time, even before the devastating hurricanes of 2017,” said Stensby. “While the transformation is still in its early stages, we have many reasons to be optimistic.”

PREPA workers had to reapply for employment, an arrangement their union opposed. About a quarter of the network’s workers were eventually moved to the new company, raising concerns among critics that the workforce may not be experienced enough to cope with Puerto Rico’s outdated network.

At the start of the transition, an explosion and fire at a main electrical substation cut off a lot of electricity.

“Twenty-six hours later we were able to restore all of these clients,” said Stensby. “We were able to demonstrate our ability and react quickly to the event.

But the files filed by LUMA from June to August show that the outages lasted longer on average than last year under PREPA: more than five hours, against less than half that time during the same months of 2020. ( The US average is around 82 minutes.) Mr Stensby said during the Congressional hearing that the system remains shaky – and customers have underreported their outages before because they didn’t expect to that the public service is responsive.

Puerto Rican lawmakers have demanded to know exactly how many line workers LUMA has employed. PREPA historically had around 800 of them. Mr Stensby said during this month’s hearing that the company had around 900, but he didn’t say how many had previous experience in Puerto Rico, other than saying that a large part of them had.

Lawmakers have also asked how many executives earn salaries above $ 200,000 per year. The company declined to respond, despite the Puerto Rico Supreme Court order to do so.

Juan Declet-Barreto, senior social scientist for climate vulnerability at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is part of a coalition that has urged the Biden administration to withhold federal funds used to pay the company unless guarantees are added to the contract and that it aligns better with the White House’s policy goals of promoting renewable energy and protecting workers’ rights. Otherwise, the funds will be wasted, said Dr Declet-Barreto.

“And when another hurricane arrives, it won’t have to be Category 5 – with a tropical storm, half the island will be left without electricity,” he said.

For exhausted Puerto Ricans like Ms. Vega, struggling with day-to-day blackouts, political pressure on public services is welcome but insufficient. To her, it seems like no one is taking responsibility for her rotten food, fixing her fridge, losing homework as she pursues an online bachelor’s degree, and fearful of her son with every power outage.

“My neighbor, an old man who lives alone, locks himself in because he’s scared,” she said. “I’m bringing him candles.”

Once she can afford a house, she hopes to install solar panels.

For now, she plans to keep an ice pack in her freezer, just in case. Her owner asked her to use less electricity. She only ran the air conditioning for a few hours every other day.

And when she left the apartment, she made sure to unplug the computer, television, washing machine and refrigerator.

Edmy Ayala contribution to reporting from San Juan, PR

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