Why Puerto Ricans are bracing for more blackouts

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Puerto Rico’s brittle power grid emerged from the winter months with no major disruptions after a devastating hurricane knocked out electricity across the territory last year. But residents worry their good fortune might not last much longer.

In the six months since Hurricane Fiona hit, an intense effort has been underway to shore up the power grid against outages and accelerate the territory’s transition to renewable energy. But fears persist that Puerto Rico’s power system will not be ready for the coming hurricane season and that its 3.3 million inhabitants will once again face life or death situations from devastating blackouts.

The Biden administration has won praise for its efforts to address Puerto Rico’s persistent power problems, even though residents have directed some of their ire at the federal entity overseeing the territory’s finances.

Local leaders have also been criticized for their persistence in privatizing key parts of the power system and seeking to increase Puerto Rico’s reliance on natural gas to try to avoid more outages — a strategy clean energy advocates and community group leaders say flies in the face of the territory’s quest to shift to 100 percent renewable energy.

President Joe Biden tapped Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last year to lead the federal government’s efforts to modernize the grid, and the former Michigan governor has already traveled to Puerto Rico three times. She began another workweek-long visit on Monday and will tour a technical college founded by the private company managing Puerto Rico’s grid to train the utility workforce, followed by visits with a local homeowner, businesses using solar power and a community solar project.

“We are on it,” Granholm told POLITICO. “People need to, I think, hold us accountable for progress. And I think Puerto Ricans understand that you can’t fix an entire grid overnight. It’s a very complicated and large machine.”

Years of underinvestment and poor maintenance have left the grid vulnerable to weather disasters, which frequently cause blackouts. But Hurricane Maria caused unprecedented destruction in 2017 when it roared ashore, killing almost 3,000 people and plunging parts of the territory into blackouts that lasted nearly a year. Last September, Hurricane Fiona left thousands of residents in the southern and southwestern areas without power for 12 days while other parts of the territory experienced intermittent outages.

Puerto Rico’s power system is “still nowhere in a good position six months after Fiona, five and a half years after [Hurricane] Maria,” said Frankie Miranda, president and CEO of the Hispanic Federation — a Latino advocacy group that has invested millions in Puerto Rico and worked with community-based organizations focusing on emergency response and grid resilience.

Ruth Santiago, an environmental attorney in Puerto Rico and a member of a coalition named Queremos Sol — We Want Solar — said residents “are all sort of keeping our fingers crossed that we don’t have a big power outage.”

“The smaller ones are still occurring. The system is not stable,” she said.

But Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said the distribution system has been relatively stable with no major interruptions — although there have been power generation issues that he said were “dealt with expeditiously.” And he credited the Federal Emergency Management Agency for providing emergency help to make the grid more resilient and for bringing additional power resources via generators capable of providing about 350 megawatts of power ahead of the next hurricane season.

Granholm noted that a portion of Puerto Rico’s power grid recently went down for an hour, but that outage did not spread to the broader grid. This is in contrast to previous incidents when power disruptions in one section of the territory’s grid cascaded throughout the system, causing widespread blackouts.

“Will the grid be totally ready for the next hurricane season? In all candor it will not,” Granholm said. “But, will it be better than it was last time? Will there be a quicker response than there was last time? That’s exactly what we are all striving for, that people will not be without power for months.”

Mario Hurtado, chief regulatory officer for private grid manager LUMA Energy, which has drawn much of the public’s anger since it took over control of the power network in 2021, said it has made a lot of progress in rebuilding the grid. That includes substation repairs and vegetation management, which has occurred since Fiona in what he described as the “largest FEMA financed rebuilding of a grid ever.”

The grid has not experienced a system-wide failure such as the one triggered by the storm since then, he said.

“I would say that it is improving, but it still remains a fragile grid that needs a lot of work,” Hurtado said.

Residents have expressed frustration with local government officials, including Pierluisi, especially in the wake of a Puerto Rico House of Representatives’ committee report that questioned the recently awarded generation management contract granted to a subsidiary of liquefied natural gas company New Fortress Energy. That award came after Pierluisi rejected calls to cancel the contract of LUMA, despite outrage over frequent blackouts last year.

That generation contract was announced the same week that an Energy Department report showed Puerto Rico’s 2050 target of reaching 100 percent renewable energy mandated by its legislature was within reach.

“There’s a lot of concern bringing in a natural gas supply company is not going to help the transition to renewable energy,” said Cathy Kunkel, energy program manager with Cambio PR, an organization promoting sustainable policies and strategies in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. “I think generally people are pretty skeptical after the experience with LUMA.”

A spokesperson for New Fortress Energy subsidiary Genera said it is “well prepared” to manage the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s legacy assets, with one of its main goals being to “retire and decommission antiquated power plants.”

Puerto Rico’s public-private partnership authority and the government-owned utility are seeking candidates to bring on new power generation capacity through a new 300 megawatt liquefied natural gas facility.

Pierluisi described that effort as one intended to “generate energy from green hydrogen” — even though it would be fed by LNG, a fossil fuel. Such efforts are critical, he said, even though Puerto Rico is “turning to renewable energy with a sense of urgency” because the territory still has old plants burning fuel that is not compliant with EPA emissions standards and are expected to shut down, but which are needed for now to prevent power disruptions.

“In order to avoid blackouts and major interruptions, you need to have this new generation for the next couple of decades,” he said. “We need stability and flexibility while we transform.”

Renewable energy advocates and community group leaders dispute the need for more natural gas facilities and say the DOE report validated what they have been saying all along: it is possible for Puerto Rico to be sustained 100 percent by renewable energy, and new fossil fuel infrastructure could become stranded assets.

“I think we’ve been frustrated over the last few years that we haven’t seen the Puerto Rican government prioritize the transition to renewable energy,” said Charlotte Gossett Navarro, the Hispanic Federation’s chief director for Puerto Rico.

Natural gas-fired power plants generated 43 percent of Puerto Rico’s total electricity in fiscal 2022, with petroleum generating an additional 37 percent, coal 17 percent and renewables at 3 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Residents and businesses that can afford the upfront costs have been turning to renewable energy, particularly in the wake of Fiona. LUMA has connected 47,000 customers to rooftop solar since starting operations in June 2021, amounting to about 600 megawatts on the system, Hurtado said.

Pierluisi said there is about 1,000 MW of utility-scale renewable energy in the pipeline in the permitting stage that should be closing construction contracts in the coming months, with another 1,000 MW in the next phase.

But Gossett Navarro said local government officials can speed up the transition to renewable energy, using the $14 billion in federal funds set aside for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria decimated the grid in 2017.

And Granholm is not going to Puerto Rico empty handed, thanks to $1 billion in federal funding from the omnibus package set aside by Congress — with a big push by then-chair of the House Natural Resources Committee Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) — in December to help restore the territory’s power system. That includes grants for renewable energy, energy storage, and other grid technologies for low- and moderate-income households and households that include individuals with disabilities. But Gossett Navarro said that money will only help about 40,000 households compared to the 200,000 that could have been supported if the $5 billion request had been granted.

Puerto Ricans living in the territory already pay more on average for electricity than any U.S. state, except for Hawaii, because of Puerto Rico's reliance on petroleum for electricity generation, according to EIA. And those rates will increase if a judge accepts a proposed plan to end the government-owned utility’s bankruptcy — a plan that would cut the debt almost in half, but would result in added charges to electricity bills.

For customers not receiving subsidized electricity rates, the PREPA legacy charge would average $19 a month, with low-income residential customers exempt from paying the connection fee and charges for up to 500 kilowatt hours per month, according to the fiscal oversight board in charge of the territory’s finances, commonly known as La Junta.

Robert Mujica, executive director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico — the federal entity overseeing the territory’s finances — said the frustration Puerto Ricans have over the rising power bills is understandable. But Mujica, the longtime budget director for former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who took over the job in January, also said affordability was a “critically important” factor in the board’s plan — which would dramatically cut costs by reducing PREPA’s debt and end the bankruptcy while protecting the lowest-income people from escalating power bills.

“Ideally, you wouldn’t have to do it,” he said, adding that due to the legacy of mismanagement of the power system, “somebody has to pay.”