Hurricane Irma threatens Puerto Rico with 6-month blackouts

Very possibly going from bad to worse.
Very possibly going from bad to worse.
Image: Reuters/Alvin Baez
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The US National Hurricane Center anticipates that by Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 6) the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico will be slammed by a category 5 hurricane, Irma, to be followed by a tropical storm, dubbed Jose. Puerto Rico is already struggling with power supply woes, and Ricardo Ramos, the director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is predicting four-to-six-month blackouts in parts of the US territory.

Ramos told local radio station Notiuno 630 AM on Sept. 5 that power would likely be restored to parts of the island within a week of the extreme weather. Still, he expects much longer outages to be common, as local infrastructure has deteriorated during a decade of economic recession. Puerto Ricans probably won’t be surprised.

PREPA has been officially in crisis since 2014 when it would have declared bankruptcy for $9 billion in debt but was unable to do so under the US Code’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy provisions. The local legislature’s attempt to work around this was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2016.

Ramos took over direction of PREPA in March and was already facing an uphill battle. In July, the public utility defaulted on a bond restructuring deal it struck in 2014, and consistent electricity has been a rarity for Puerto Ricans, long before the coming storms threatened.

A November 2016 report by Synapse Energy Associates (pdf) in Massachusetts, commissioned by Puerto Rican power authorities, noted that PREPA ”appears to be running on fumes, and…desperately requires an infusion of capital—monetary, human, and intellectual—to restore a functional utility.” The independent energy assessors summarized the power woes as follows:

The severe outages, deferred maintenance, and a lack of experienced staff have resulted in an increasingly brittle transmission system—as witnessed by the three‐day outage…in September 2016…. PREPA’s own records show that the number of service interruptions experienced by PREPA customers in the past few months of 2016 have been four to five times higher than the average US customer.

Last year, the New York Times reported that PREPA’s crushing debt was in great part due to the public utility providing free power to 78 municipalities, many government endeavors, and even to for-profit businesses for decades. Meanwhile, private citizens in Puerto Rico have faced ever-higher power bills and a decrease in service quality.

Former Puerto Rico senator Ramón Luis Nieves, chair of the PR Senate Energy Affairs Committee from 2014 to 2016, wrote in Energy Dive in April that the island needs “an energy revolution.” He referred to the territory as “America’s Greece” in light of its $70 billion debt, a sizable chunk of which was racked up by PREPA.

Now, however, it seems that PREPA will be dealing with much more basic matters, like getting power to people after the coming storms. The much-needed revolution will no doubt be delayed if weather is as bad as predicted.

Up to 10 inches of rain, landslides, flash floods, and waves over 20 feet are expected when Irma’s eye passes near Puerto Rico tomorrow. In preparation, governor Ricardo Rosselló declared a state of emergency on Monday, temporary shelters have been set up to accommodate about 60,00 people, and the government issued a price freeze on food, water, medicine, generators, and batteries.