Why Puerto Rico is struggling to stabilize its power grid

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Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico earlier this month, knocking out power to nearly half of the island’s 3.3 million people. Full power was not restored on Thursday.

The September 18 Category 1 storm hampered Puerto Rico’s still-fragile recovery from the twin disasters of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Maria was the storm that first exposed the island’s vulnerable and outdated power grid , that the federal government spent $12.8 billion. to be modernized over the past five years.

Yet even before the Fiona punch – which left 1.5 million people without power – customers complained of frequent blackouts, high energy prices and general unreliability.

“It’s sad,” House Natural Resources President Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) said in a recent interview. “It seems like just when the people on the island are starting to get up a bit, something else comes hitting them.”

Grijalva’s committee oversees island affairs, including US territories. The panel postponed a Friday reconstruction and power grid hearing with Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi and energy officials due to scheduling conflicts as well as due to Hurricane Ian, which caused catastrophic damage to southwest Florida.

What is the current energy situation?

The Commonwealth’s energy network is almost dependent entirely on fossil fuels, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

LUMA Energy, the island’s main energy provider, has restored power to around 81% of its island customers, or 1.2 million people, according to the latest statistics posted on the company’s website.

Puerto Rico is made up of six regions. The company estimated that power will be restored to 90% of the last two of them – Ponce and Mayagüez – between October 4 and 6, more than two weeks after Fiona landed.

Who manages and maintains the energy supply?

LUMA Energy is a joint venture between the Canadian company ATCO and the Texas company Quanta Services. It took over management of Puerto Rico’s energy grid in 2021 from the government-run Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Years of mismanagement and eventual bankruptcy led PREPA to cede much control to the private sector.

LUMA received a lucrative 15-year contract but struggled to maintain reliable service and affordable rates for its customers. Puerto Ricans spend about 8% of their income on electricity, compared to an average of 2.4% in the Americas, according at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. The median annual income on the island is $21,000, according at the United States Census Bureau. The company has increased consumer rates seven times since taking over in June 2021.

Puerto Rico’s Independent Energy Office regulates and enforces the island’s energy policy, which sometimes puts it at odds with PREPA, the utility that has traditionally relied on fossil fuels to power the grid. PREPA had a monopoly on the power grid before 2020, when the utility chose LUMA as its operator for the next 15 years under a public-private partnership.

Related: Puerto Rico Bankruptcy Judge Grants Utilities Litigation (1)

What hindered the construction of the network after Irma and Maria?

Red tape, delays by federal agencies in releasing funds, the bankruptcy of PREPA, and a lack of resources to build more resilient infrastructure have all contributed to the island’s still-fragile energy grid. The fossil fuel-dependent power grid also relies on above-ground transmission lines that are particularly vulnerable to inclement weather along Puerto Rico’s mountainous terrain.

Damage from Irma and Maria caused the longest blackout – 11 months – in US history, according to the Government Accountability Office. WAG in 2019 stain the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for providing inadequate guidance on network recovery efforts – and the federal government as a whole for failing to coordinate various stakeholders well.

The watchdog too reported that in August, the Puerto Rican government had spent just $5.3 billion, or 19%, of the roughly $28 billion it had received in federal public assistance, which includes money for public services .

What role does Congress and the administration play?

Grijalva’s House Natural Resources Committee, along with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Panel led by Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), has jurisdiction over all five U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in 2016, creating an oversight board for the Commonwealth to manage its debt restructuring and help approve critical infrastructure projects. .

Grijalva, however, described the effort to modernize the network at this stage as “a failure” and said the island still needed “an independent, ethical public service with very strong oversight”.

The New York Congressional delegation, including Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D), who is Puerto Rican, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D), demanded more money to help Puerto Rico’s recovery . House and Senate Democrats, including Velazquez, wrote House leaders and top appropriation officials on September 26, urging Congress to pass an additional emergency bill this year, including at least $2.9 billion for disaster relief and recovery in Puerto Rico.

“Congress must respond to the moment and help the people of Puerto Rico,” Velazquez tweeted September 27. The resolution continues to fund the government’s Congress set to pass on Friday would allow FEMA to spend more of the Disaster Relief Fund by Dec. 16 to respond to declared disasters, including Fiona as well as Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida.

House Energy and Commerce Democrats are demanding answers by mid-October from LUMA on its management of the network over the past two years and recovery efforts.

Earlier: Puerto Rico network operator says Fiona damage could reach $1 billion: report

Earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security granted a temporary Jones Act waiver to expedite fuel shipments to Puerto Rico to help restore power. The Jones Act prohibits non-US ships from delivering goods between domestic ports.

What if we switched to renewable energies?

Puerto Rico’s Public Energy Policy Act of 2019 establishes a 100% renewable energy goal for the island, phased in over the next 30 years. The measure required Puerto Rico to obtain 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Renewables, however, made up only 3% of Puerto Rico’s energy mix in fiscal year 2021.

The Department of Energy has provided technical assistance and advice to Puerto Rico for the past five years to help the island transition to a more resilient energy grid that helps it meet the renewable energy goals set out in the law.

Solar micro-grids installed on the island would have helped keep the lights on for some Puerto Ricans after Fiona’s hit. But it’s unclear how the island will meet its 2025 target, let alone more ambitious plans.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at [email protected]; Robin Meszoly at [email protected]

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