Half of Puerto Rico Still in the Dark

By Marlena Chertock | Jan 9, 2018
Hurricane Maria damage




More than three months after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, more than half the island remains without power. Some experts estimate parts of the island may not have power until spring.
About 55 percent of Puerto Ricans have had their power restored, but more than 1.5 million people in the U.S. territory remain without power, according to figures released at the end of December by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and PREPA, the island’s power utility company.

Until recently, the government didn’t have accurate numbers, since the outage management system was damaged in the storm. The fiber optic cables that enable the system to read meters have since been repaired, offering the government a better understanding of remaining outages.

In October, Rosselló pledged to restore 95 percent of power by December 15. Most of P.R. should have power by the end of February, according to Gen. Diana M. Holland, the commander of the South Atlantic Division of the Army Corps of Engineers (COE). The rest of the island, the hard to access rural areas, may not get power back until the end of May (around the time the 2018 hurricane season will begin), according to the COE.

Amid criticism, the chief executive of PREPA stepped down in November after an outcry of its decision to award a $300 million restoration contract to Whitefish Energy, a small Montana firm that only had two employees. Later, the government canceled that contract.

Power restoration has been so slow because of the sheer scale of damage from the hurricane and delays in shipping supplies. Some homes are so damaged, they’re unable to receive electricity, according to José E. Sánchez, who heads the COE task force to restore power in P.R.

As of the end of December, 73 of the 78 municipalities have some power, many using generators installed by the COE to create temporary power micro-grids. Some municipalities that have had their power restored still experience blackouts. The central towns, Adjuntas, Lares and Utuado, are expected to take the longest to restore power.

A majority of the island’s electrical infrastructure was decimated in the storm: 2,400 miles of transmission lines, 30,000 miles of distribution lines and 342 substations. About 50,000 power poles and 500 towers need to be repaired or replaced. Some 30,000 power poles ordered on October 6 arrived on the island months later; 400 miles of cable may arrive in late January, according to Justo González, the interim director of PREPA.
An additional 1,500 restoration workers, support personnel, and hundreds of trucks, tools and equipment — from investor-owned electric companies that are members of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) — are being sent to the island in early January, according to an EEI press release. This will bring the total power restoration workers in P.R. to over 5,500. 

“Providing support to fellow electric companies in need is a hallmark of our industry, and I am very proud of our unique mutual assistance program,” EEI President Tom Kuhn said.

EEI incident management teams (IMT) will complete a full damage assessment of the island’s energy grid and develop an updated restoration plan. IMTs have helped PREPA manage logistics so it can put lineworkers and personnel to work once they arrive. EEI worked with the American Public Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to supply equipment, resources and crews.

Talks of turning the electric grid green have pervaded discussions of rebuilding the island. Introducing renewable power to the aging, poorly maintained grid will be a challenge.
Meanwhile, residents remain in the dark, schools and businesses stay closed, hundreds of people are living in shelters and lack reliable drinking water, and hospitals struggle to remain open and functioning. Diesel generators, which people rely on for hospital equipment, charging cell phones, and powering electric stoves, fans and refrigerators, are also polluting the air.
The lengthy power outage has increased health risks and mortality, according to NPR. Many are worried about the ongoing environmental catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of people have abandoned the island for the mainland U.S.

About The Author

Chertock is a poet and renewable energy and science journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact her at [email protected].

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