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 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.