Fiona’s outage rekindles anger over Puerto Rico’s privatized electric grid

The grid’s struggles go back years, partly stemming from low investment in basic maintenance by the bankrupt, state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, as well as a slow inflow of billions of dollars in federal disaster aid. But the predominantly Spanish-speaking island’s problems also lie in its status as a US territory, with no voting representation in Congress and no electoral votes for the presidency.

The privatization of the grid’s management has attracted much recent fury, with the Puerto Rican government calling on the Puerto Rican government to take steps to end LUMA’s control of the grid as soon as November.

Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress used a hearing last week to question why LUMA should remain in charge of the grid, and other critics cited figures showing that outages under the company’s management last longer. are gone.

“History is repeating itself because we no longer have Hurricane Maria, but Hurricane Luma,” Ruth Santiago, a community and environmental advocate in Puerto Rico and a member of the activist group Querémos Sol, said days before the storm hit.

Julio López Varona, co-head of campaigns for the Center for Popular Democracy, said on Monday that the weakness of the grid facing Fiona was too predictable.

“Sadly, we knew a lot like this would happen,” he said of the island-wide power outages. “It’s kind of an account and it was a bad one.”

LUMA, which has blamed the system’s fragility on decades of mismanagement and neglect, said on Monday it had restored power to more than 100,000 customers.

“We will continue to operate non-stop until every customer is reinstated and the entire grid is reactivated,” LUMA’s public safety manager, Abner Gomez, said in a statement.

Fiona hits Puerto Rico as a Category 1 hurricane – weakest of five hurricane levels – but dumps predictable 32 Parts of the island received inches of rain, causing flooding and landslides. LUMA said its crews are working “tirelessly” to restore service across the island, but full restoration could take several days.

Unplanned outages cause major damage to equipment needed for businesses and hospitals, as well as freezers and refrigerators needed to store medicines. And drinking water on the island has been at least partly disrupted by power outages and flooding, with the system wrecked.

officials have at least blamed one death in a storm, Despite the storm making landfall in the Dominican Republic, heavy rain, flash floods, destructive winds and rough seas from Fiona are affecting Puerto Rico, according to the National Weather Service.

According to people on the ground, parts of the San Juan metro area had electricity and water as of Monday, but both services have yet to be fully restored. Guayanabo, a suburb of San Juan in the northern part of the island, had no electricity or water service. Significant flooding occurred in the southern and central parts of the island where rainfall was particularly heavy, including the city of Salinas.

Many of the island’s power plants are located in the southern parts of Puerto Rico, feeding power lines to transport energy to more densely populated areas in the north.

The storm occurred two days after Maria’s fifth anniversary, which made landfall on the island as a Category 4 hurricane. Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, came just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, Due to which there is widespread power outage and water service gets disrupted.

when Billions of dollars set aside by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid in the aftermath of those two hurricanes have slowly been trickled out. LUMA said it has initiated 225 projects with FEMA, representing more than $5 billion in federally funded projects, since it took over management of the grid.

However, the traffic jam continues from time to time. In April, parts of Puerto Rico were out of power for five days following an island-wide blackout due to a possible equipment failure.

In August, LUMA launched an effort Curbing the island’s frequent and prolonged power cuts under increasing pressure what workers want To cancel his 15 year contract.

LUMA, a joint venture of Canadian utility holding company ATCO and US construction firm Quanta Services, was selected in June 2020 by the government-owned Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnership Authority. To manage the grid. The government could cancel the deal as early as November when a supplementary agreement to the contract is due to expire.

López Varona of the Center for Popular Democracy said “LUMA has responsibility” for the ongoing electricity issues “because they took the contract and they are taking the money,” which organizes communities in favor of a fair recovery for Puerto Rico. does.

López Varona considers himself one of the “lucky ones” because his home has a solar panel system that has performed well during Fiona.

Energy experts and activists also blame Puerto Rico’s government and the region’s Financial Oversight and Management Board, Created by Congress to oversee and approve Puerto Rico’s budget. The board has implemented austerity measures such as cutting education funding and closing schools and cutting public sector pensions, which advocates say have worsened the island’s poverty. The board has also privatized the publicly owned electricity grid, which Activists say that electricity has contributed to the crisis.

“One of the biggest things we have to do is eliminate the fiscal control board from its existence,” said López Varona. His organization has published a report on the fifth anniversary of the construction of Federal law that aims to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis – the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act – and is considered a failure,

Matthew Riker, Its critics “often leave it open what they define as austerity,” said a spokesman for the financial board, but the organization is focused on restructuring the island’s debt and gaining financial responsibility.

part of it involves breaking The area’s state-owned utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, splits into two parts: one that deals with the grid and one that deals with the transfer of electricity supply and management to private entities.

LUMA is only part of this effort, but it has received a great deal of outcry from residents.

The island’s non-voting Republican congressional representative, Jennifer González-Cologne, questioned FEMA and LUMA Energy officials during a hearing on Thursday about how many billions the federal agency has owed to Puerto Rico’s recovery, exactly. has gone out the door. The hearing focused on rebuilding the power grid and other essential infrastructure over the five years as Maria struck both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

Gonzalez-Koln also questioned why LUMA should remain in charge of the grid.

“I am really concerned about outages on the island, even if there is no disaster on site,” she said last week.

LUMA Energy Senior Vice President Shay Bahramirad called the design of the power system “very poor” but said at the hearing that it has improved since the company took over. She called the road to recovery “a journey.”

Bahramirad, citing data, said that an average customer in Puerto Rico experiences 7.6 outages a year, down from 10.6 outages when the grid was still being managed by PREPA. but one Puerto Rico Energy Bureau report Every month since January saw an overall increase in outage periods per customer — and no improvement in the frequency of interruptions.

“I don’t think we can describe it as progress in any way,” Santiago said.

The House Natural Resources Committee was scheduled to hold an inspection hearing about the Promesa and Luma contracts this coming Thursday, but it has been canceled because of the storm, a committee spokesman said Monday.

While the fiscal board does While LUMA does not have direct oversight, it reviewed the company’s contract as part of its requirements to investigate all deals worth $10 million or more, Rieker said. The purpose of those reviews is to ensure that contracts are awarded in a competitive fashion and comply with a financial plan established by the Board.

“There is no question that we thought LUMA was the right candidate, given the fairly extensive search process,” he said. He said the island has seen improvements in service and safety under LUMA.

“The problem that Luma is dealing with is that outages tend to be longer,” he said. “This gives people on the island the impression that outages are worse than they were under PREPA.”

Complaints about the state of the grid are coupled with a fierce debate about Puerto Rico’s shift toward solar power and away from its traditional reliance on fossil-fuel energy and long-distance power lines.

Renewable energy advocates are pushing FEMA to use the $9.5 billion it mandated to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid to install rooftop solar on the homes of residents who otherwise can’t afford the system’s upfront cost. He says it would make people less vulnerable to outages, including those caused by storms like Fiona.

Anne Bink, a FEMA associate for the Office of Response and Recovery, pledged last week that the funds would be “fully used” in a way that complies with the island’s renewable energy goals.

Under the 2019 Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act (17-2019), PREPA is required to derive 40 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025, 60 percent by 2040 and 100 percent by 2050. The law also requires phasing out coal. – Generation fired by 2028.

“While it takes time to get there, we think it’s time well spent because the island will be more resilient, more independent from an energy standpoint,” Bink said at last week’s hearing.

According to the Institute for Energy Economics, an increase in fossil fuel spending for an island that imports most of its energy resources has raised the electricity rate from 18.2 cents per kilowatt-hour in January 2021 to 33.4 cents today – a On the island where the median income is $21,000. financial analysis.

PREPA rates are higher than the average household on the mainland US, with rate-payers paying 8 percent of their income for electricity, while the US average is 2.4 percent.

“People can’t pay anymore,” Santiago said.

Isabel Dobrin contributed to this report.

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