Billions of dollars went to repair Puerto Rico's electric grid, but it still failed
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
A black start is the process of restoring an electric grid from a shutdown. Puerto Rico faces another one after Hurricane Fiona knocked out all power on the island this weekend. But Puerto Rico's grid was already fragile. Five years after Hurricane Maria left many residents without electricity for nearly a year, the power supply remained unreliable and prone to blackouts in any weather. And many Puerto Ricans are pointing fingers at the private entity which took over the grid last summer.
Here to tell us more is Sergio Marxuach. He is the public policy director at the Center for a New Economy - that's a think tank based in Puerto Rico - and he joins us now from San Juan. Thank you for being here.
SERGIO MARXUACH: Thank you. And good afternoon to all our listeners.
SUMMERS: First, I just want to ask you, how are you doing? Do you have power right now?
MARXUACH: No, I do not have power in my home. I own a generator, so that's what we have been using since Sunday at 1 p.m.
SUMMERS: Wow. This storm comes five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico's power grid. And since then, there have been billions of federal dollars allocated to address this issue. So why is the grid so fragile?
MARXUACH: Well, the problem is that once the emergency repairs were done to the system back in 2018, we were supposed to get on with what FEMA calls permanent work to strengthen and make the grid more resilient. And that hasn't really happened. And there are a lot of factors that have affected that - mostly bureaucratic setbacks both at the federal level and at the Puerto Rico level. We haven't been able to actually get that process going.
SUMMERS: Now, one thing that has changed after Hurricane Maria is LUMA Energy came in as a private operator. That was last June. How has it performed so far?
MARXUACH: So far, their performance has been below expectations, I would say. I think they probably underestimated the complexity of the task they were undertaking. And they definitely over-promised and have under-delivered. Unfortunately, we're kind of stuck with them for now. We do need to get the power back up after the storm, so - and they're the only operator we have. And it's my belief that the government should review whether or not to continue with this contract after the emergency response is over.
SUMMERS: Puerto Rico's public power authority, known as PREPA, used to be in charge of this whole system. But PREPA is now bankrupt. And LUMA and PREPA keep pointing the finger at each other. Who should be in charge of Puerto Rico's power?
MARXUACH: That is really the problem. The governor of Puerto Rico created that problem by separating transmission and distribution from generation and then having PREPA still own the assets. PREPA is still the owner of the grid, but LUMA is the operator. So I would say that a private operator was not necessarily a bad idea in and of itself. If you look at most states, they have both public and private power producers. But so far, they have not been successful.
SUMMERS: I'm curious about how this unreliable power looks for businesses and households on the island. Do you have a sense of scale of the impact?
MARXUACH: As you can imagine, it's a nightmare if you're a small business owner. Imagine that you're the owner of a small convenience store, and you need to have power 24/7 so you don't lose ice cream, milk, yogurt, cheese, things like that. So that forces you to have full backup all the time, which is an incredible expense. Same with households - that also forces many homes in Puerto Rico to spend all this money on private generation or putting solar cells on their rooftops, which are very expensive, too.
SUMMERS: Sergio Marxuach is the public policy director at the Center for a New Economy. It's a think tank based in Puerto Rico. Thank you for your time, and stay safe.
MARXUACH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.