Probing Puerto Rico’s Power Paucity

 

-Shilpa Gunuganti

 

Ten weeks have elapsed since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and wreaked havoc, while simultaneously generating a plethora of infrastructure issues, including a disastrous power shortage. Hurricane Maria has caused a loss of 1.25 billion hours of electricity supply for Americans, which makes it the largest blackout in U.S. history.


Unfortunately, this enormous number of hours will, without a doubt, continue to grow at this gradual recovery rate. Six weeks after the disaster, 70% of the island was still without power. As of this week,
the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has only regained about half of its generating capacity. This sluggish growth has left many wondering about the reason for delay.

Typically, with a large-scale power outage, two U.S. groups will coordinate responses with mutual-aid agreements, the same contracts that were used in Florida and Texas. In Hurricane Harvey’s case, power company AEP Texas initiated a mutual-aid agreement with EEI and staged about 1,000 workers from 11 states before Harvey even made landfall.

With Hurricane Maria, challenges came up right from the start for power companies and these beneficial actions were not able to be taken. The American Public Power Association (APPA) was ready with a contract for the coordinated response effort but the call to initiate the help was never made.

Because of this lack of efficiency and coordination, power companies headed to Puerto Rico were already a few steps behind the usual response rate. Furthermore, Whitefish Energy Holdings, a small Montana firm, was given the $300 million no-bid contract with PREPA to serve as coordinator of all power companies headed to Puerto Rico.

The Whitefish Energy contract attracted intense scrutiny in Washington. While the Department of Homeland Security said it was investigating, The House Committee on Natural Resources demanded to see all of the agreement records. FEMA said it had “significant concerns” and warned that it might refuse to cover the costs, which led to the final decision to cancel.

On top of this distraction, Puerto Rico’s road to recovery is still being obstructed. Despite the contract cancellation, Whitefish Energy was supposed to continue its work but it delivered the latest blow on recovery efforts. A week ago, the company announced it would stop all work until Puerto Rico’s government paid the $83 million it was owed by the very same cancelled contract.

Although the legalities of the issues are not clear, Whitefish made problems worse. Compounded with the preexisting economic issues in Puerto Rico, the confusion, disorganization, and delays were bound to prolong this horrible blackout, which has left the individuals and small businesses in the region entirely helpless.

In times of persistent recovery, it is not only important to focus on future possibilities, but also essential to carefully examine mistakes or events that could have been carried out in a more suitable manner. By scrutinizing the recovery effort in Puerto Rico, we can ensure that the same mistakes never occur again and that we are better prepared for next time.

 

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