After $3.2 billion, will Puerto Rico’s grid survive another storm?

The island’s dilapidated electric grid hums with life a year after a meteorological jackhammer named Maria battered the island.

By Tim Johnson

McClatchy Washington Bureau

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The lights are on again in Puerto Rico.

The island’s dilapidated electric grid hums with life a year after a meteorological jackhammer named Maria battered the island, toppling its high-tension towers and sending residents into prolonged darkness.

It took a mammoth effort to repair the grid. Thousands of linemen arrived from as far as California, Hawaii and even the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean to stand up power lines and reconnect homes. Twenty massive barges brought 1,000 bucket trucks on loan.

But despite spending as much as $3.2 billion, the federal effort over the past year to restore power to the island didn’t build a better and more resilient system. In fact, the grid is more fragile. A severe new storm would put Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million residents into deep trouble.

“It’s weaker today than before,” said Jose F. Ortiz, chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Ortiz and others involved in getting the lights back on in Puerto Rico offer no apologies for the lack of improvements to the grid. They said that would have been impossible — practically and legally.

“You don’t have the time to design it, get the right material and build it,” said Carlos D. Torres, a retired vice president at Consolidated Edison, the large utility in New York City. Torres was deployed to Puerto Rico by the Edison Electric Institute, then appointed by Gov. Ricardo Rossello as coordinator for storm restoration.

The most pressing concerns were to restore power, do the work safely and leave the grid stable even if antiquated, Torres said. To have made major improvements would have cost billions more, he added, and “the Stafford Act just doesn’t allow that.”

That act limits Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to work that simply restores disaster-damaged installations to their pre-hurricane state, which in Puerto Rico’s case, left the grid antiquated.

What wasn’t spent on improvements has been partially paid in lives.

Rossello in late August accepted the findings of an independent investigation and raised the official hurricane-related death toll to 2,975 people, many of them literally powerless to receive adequate attention in the six months following Hurricane Maria’s grinding passage across the island. During that period, blackouts crippled hospitals, disrupted communications, impaired transport of the ill, hampered good hygiene practices and obstructed access to potable water — all problems that killed people.

The story of the island’s decrepit electric grid, though, stretches through dysfunctions that range from San Juan to Washington and on to bankruptcy court in New York City. It travels along vegetation-clogged rights-of-way, and passes through chaotic jumbles of wires on sagging power poles. And it lands at the doorstep of the largest public power utility in the United States.

Mired in bankruptcy, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was in no shape to handle Maria’s 155 mph winds, a fact that became horrifyingly obvious in the aftermath. The utility had severely inadequate stockpiles of poles, transformers, insulators and wiring. The needs were enormous. Eventually, 52,437 poles and 35.8 million pieces of material would be delivered to Puerto Rico to reconstruct the grid. In the early days, workers salvaged storm-damaged equipment and did the best they could.

“We used the old wooden poles, stressed already by the hurricane. We were just working to restore the power with whatever means we would have at hand,” Ortiz said.

The utility was unprepared to assess damage and deploy squads systematically. The early days were chaotic. Eventually, linemen from about 60 investor-owned electric utilities and public power companies around the United States flew to Puerto Rico under a mutual assistance agreement.

They told officials they were astounded by conditions.

“They said there was no central plan with a number for every pole. There were no blueprints. They were guessing which house was getting energy from which cable,” said Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, the minority leader in the island Senate. “They were flabbergasted.”

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, roughly 110 miles long and 40 miles wide, with a rugged interior. Its highest mountain looms 4,390 feet tall. The power utility, known by its initials as PREPA, was once widely admired for bringing power to even the most jagged, isolated corners.

By the 1980s, the utility entered a steady decline. Today, its decrepit power generation plants would look at home in Cuba. They are 28 years older than the U.S. average, and suffer blackouts at a rate 12 times higher, according to a July report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Even as prices per kilowatt hours soared to double the average on the mainland, the utility racked up $9 billion in debt. Crisis management became the norm. Bondholders clamored, and sometimes the choice was to pay scheduled debt or buy fuel and keep the system running.

Routine functions fell by the wayside, like hacking back tropical vegetation.

“When I arrived in 2014, there was a three-year backlog in pruning trees,” recalled Luis Benitez Hernandez, who chaired the utility’s board from 2014 to 2017. While vegetation engulfed high-tension towers, wooden power poles faced different burdens.

“Many of the poles split during the storm, the hurricane, because they were bearing too much weight,” Benitez said, noting that a single pole could carry active power lines, abandoned lines that workers never removed, fiber optic cable and telephone lines.

Maria’s timing was awful. Twin disasters had struck weeks earlier: Hurricanes Harvey, which lashed Houston in late August 2017, and Irma, which hit Puerto Rico and traveled on to the Keys and west coast of Florida early in September. Those two storms, and a series of wildfires in the West, depleted stocks of electric grid supplies nationwide.

Over the rest of the year, authorities scrambled, bringing in small transformers from as far as Hawaii by air, and poles and insulators and other material by barge.

“The materials issue really drove a lot of the restoration effort,” Torres said. “You can’t just bring workforce out there and not have materials. They are just going to be standing around.”

The wait for materials added months to Puerto Ricans’ misery.

“If we would have had the inventory required at that time, we would have cut four to five months (from) the recovery,” Ortiz said.

As 2018 began, 40 percent of the utilities’ customers remained without power. Vast swaths of Puerto Rico dwelled in the dark — even as generators droned on incessantly.

“The smell and the yellow smoke that these generators make was a constant thing,” said Jan Curet-Alvarado, an architect in San Juan. “Whoever didn’t have a generator still had to listen to the neighbor’s generator.”

The troubled return of power to Puerto Rico — which took 11 months — contrasted with the U.S. states stricken by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Harvey hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 25 and dumped nearly 52 inches of rain on southeast Texas around Houston, double what fell on Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. At one point, 350,000 customers lost their power.

Under mutual assistance agreements between utilities, about 10,000 electric power industry workers from 21 states were on the scene quickly. Using drones to assess damage, and relying on advanced sensors, workers identified outages in real time and deployed teams to restore power within days.

A little more than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma sheared Puerto Rico, cutting power to 1 million people, and slammed into Florida, the most intense storm to hit the United States since Katrina in 2005. As many as 7.8 million customers lost power in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South and North Carolina. The recovery effort unfolded rapidly. About 250 U.S. and Canadian utilities deployed 60,000 workers to restore power, and 95 percent of customers had their lights back within a week.

A postmortem by the U.S. Energy Information Administration said “significant investments” by southeastern utilities had increased their hurricane preparedness.

“These utilities have upgraded electric infrastructure, including replacing wooden utility poles with concrete poles. Utilities have also deployed smart grid technologies, which provide more timely and more accurate information about outages and can help utilities better target restoration efforts,” the report said.

While mainland customers got their power back within a week, Puerto Rican customers endured a prolonged ordeal so traumatic that it has reshaped consumer behavior.

“I only buy for the week,” Maria Lebron, a second-grade school teacher said of her grocery trips. Fears of renewed blackouts mean that she no longer buys large quantities of perishables, anxious that they will go bad if she loses power. Two major blackouts have hit the island so far this year, a sign of fragile stability.

Puerto Ricans wring their hands over travails at PREPA.

“They are just basically putting the broken back together again, and it’s still going to be broken,” said Jonathan Marvel, an architect and co-founder of Resilient Power Puerto Rico, a nonprofit providing solar energy systems to community centers on the island.

The state utility has seen five chief executives in the past year. Public outcry caused one to be ousted in July even before he took office when it was revealed that his salary would be $750,000 a year.

Reports of fraudulent or improper dealings have dogged both the utility and the recovery process. Days after Maria slammed the island, PREPA gave a two-person Montana utility company, Whitefish Energy, a $300 million no-bid contract to bring contractors to help rebuild the devastated grid. The contract drew notice in part because Whitefish is based in the small hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who denied any link to the company.

“Only in elitist Washington D.C. would being from a small town be considered a crime,” Zinke said in a statement.

As investigations by multiple House committees mounted, PREPA canceled the contract.

Another scandal broke Jan. 6, when personnel from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency raided a PREPA-owned warehouse and seized electrification equipment that the agencies said the utility failed to distribute to contractors.

A month later, a local news report said utility workers restored power to exotic dance clubs ahead of scheduled restoration after being given $5,000 each and passes to the clubs.

Estimates vary of how much federal money was spent restoring power. Ortiz said he believes the sum was $2 billion. A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy said $3.2 billion was spent between FEMA disbursements and expenses of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As it is now, the bankrupt utility is at the center of a tug of war. Many different entities claim responsibility for oversight of its actions and spending, or can set conditions that will shape its future. In a sense, the tug of war is a mirror of the larger fate of Puerto Rico.

Those with a hand on the utility’s reins include bondholders of its $9 billion debt, a bankruptcy judge in New York City, the federal Oversight Board supervising the island’s overall debt crisis, key legislators on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Energy and even a body called the Southern States Energy Board, which is an interstate compact linking 16 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on energy matters.

Bhatia, the Senate minority leader, counts 13 different stakeholders that he said determine the fate of the utility.

“All of these groups are absolutely not in sync. They are absolutely pushing in different directions,” Bhatia said. “It’s a monster with not two heads but 13 heads.”

The price tag to bring the island’s power grid into the 21st century is $17.6 billion, according to a December 2017 study prepared by government and private experts for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Puerto Rico’s Gov. Rossello. That sum would pay for workers to put key power transmission lines underground, reinforce poles to withstand 155 mph winds, harden substations to flooding, deploy modern control systems with sensors to help isolate outages, build up inventories and once again conduct consistent pruning of vegetation.

But Ortiz said he hopes billions of dollars may begin to flow from Washington this fall for serious upgrades to the grid.

The funds may not be hampered by Stafford Act conditions, and would help the utility shoot for a target of using natural gas for 60 percent of its power generation and relying on solar for 40 percent, a dramatic shift away from reliance on polluting bunker fuel, Ortiz said.

Whether that can happen is still to be seen. But Ortiz said he’s got a vision for the island’s grid in the run-up to plans to privatize the debt-ridden utility.

“It’s going to be hardened. It’s going to be a smart grid. And it’s going to be very strong and very resilient,” he said.