Hurricane Fiona has caused the collapse of Puerto Rico’s electricity system, again. After the storm, the island essentially had to reactivate its power system from what is called a “blackstart” in the industry, which is the technical term that describes the process of reactivating the power generation system after a total blackout.
The sad thing is that we know what we have to do and we haven’t done it. After the ravages caused by Maria, a new vision for the system was developed and laws and regulations were amended to upgrade transmission and distribution networks and encourage consumer use of renewable energy sources. Puerto Rico already has a forward-looking vision for the energy sector and the legislation and regulations to implement it. We also have clear guidelines for regulators regarding environmental goals, renewable energy standards, energy efficiency, and energy demand management.
We know that, in terms of generation, large generation facilities with payback cycles of more than 30 years are increasingly a thing of the past. We also know that, on the transmission and distribution side, the grid must evolve to efficiently and reliably incorporate distributed generation with renewable sources, and the use of batteries at the grid level, as well as at the retail level, to allow the storage of electricity when its immediate use is not required and thus promote and increase the value of intermittent generation resources.
However, we have fully failed in the execution. Emergency repairs for Maria’s damage to the system ended in 2018. Since then, we have done little or nothing to redesign and modernize our electric system. We should not be surprised, then, that we are facing another general blackout and the need to evacuate cancer patients from the most advanced treatment center in Puerto Rico. This is unacceptable.
The first step now after Fiona is to conduct a thorough assessment of the damage to the energy system. It is imperative to know which parts failed, when, how, and why. Once we have that analysis, we must take advantage of this juncture to bring the island’s stagnant power system into the 21st century. In other words, we must use the “blackstart” to make a major qualitative leap.
Second, we need to have a serious conversation as a country about this issue and identify where we have failed in the implementation process. Part of the problem is that PREPA is bankrupt, highly inefficient, has been used by political parties for decades to reward their members, insists on using fossil fuels as if we were in the 1950s, and is perhaps the second most corrupt agency in government after the Department of Education. If we were starting from scratch this would not be the organization to be in charge of the process.
Another factor that explains the lack of progress is that several complex processes that affect Puerto Rico’s electrical system are running concurrently and it seems that there is no one coordinating them to avoid that what is being done on one side adversely affect what is being done on the other. Among these processes are the restructuring of PREPA’s debt; the transfer of the operation of the transmission and distribution system to LUMA; the possible privatization of PREPA’s generation assets; the slow reconstruction and modernization of the transmission and distribution system; and the incorporation of renewable sources.
These processes have been affected by the multiplicity of federal and state agencies with partial jurisdiction over Puerto Rico’s energy sector, for example, the U.S. Department of Energy, FEMA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, PREPA, LUMA, the P3 Authority, COR3, the Puerto Rico Housing Department, the Puerto Rico Public Energy Policy Program in the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, a recently appointed Assistant Secretary to the Governor in charge of energy issues, and the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico. It seems, then, that no one entity is in charge of the whole, no one agency is really looking at the complete puzzle.
Finally, we should not kid ourselves, rebuilding the grid involves the expenditure of a lot of money. Between FEMA and HUD, nearly $12 billion has been allocated for this project. This has caused many entities, both for-profit and NGOs, to lobby for a portion of that money, each extolling the recommendations of their “experts” and the merits of their “plan” for the system.
The result of all of the above has been total paralysis. We need to put aside the petty politics, get the contract hacks out of the way, identify the obstacles and bottlenecks that have impeded progress, and rethink how we are going to implement what we already know we need to do. Enough of hospitals without electricity. The zero hour is here.
This column was originally published in Spanish in El Nuevo Día on September 20, 2022.