Martín Echenique is an editorial fellow at CityLab, formerly at CityLab Latino. His work has been featured by The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Clarín, Univision, El Espectador, La Tercera, El Nuevo Herald, and other outlets.
Almost seven months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is experiencing a complete power outage. The island’s electricity provider said it will take from 24 to 36 hours to bring power back across the U.S. territory.
Puerto Rico is again in the dark: The island is experiencing a complete power outage, its first since right after Hurricane Maria hit nearly seven months ago.
Puerto Rico’s state-owned power authority, AEE (also known as PREPA), said the failure was caused by a bulldozer that damaged line 50700, an important underground section of the grid near the island’s largest power plant, about 50 miles south of the capital, San Juan. The bulldozer was removing a collapsed electricity tower when it hit the power line. It was operated by a crew employed by Cobra Energy, a mainland-based subcontractor that AEE hired to help in the reconstruction process.
Reports say that no power plants are working on the island and that restoring electricity to 1.4 million customers could take up to 36 hours or longer. The entire island is affected, with the exception of Vieques and Culebra, two smaller islands off the east coast that are not connected to the main grid. Authorities are now focusing on restoring power at San Juan’s international airport (which is currently operating with a generator), hospitals, and banking institutions.
Al momento estamos operando con generador eléctrico. No se han registrado atrasos ni cancelaciones en los vuelos. Para más información, les exhortamos a que se comuniquen con su línea aérea.— Aeropuerto SJU (@AeropuertoSJU) April 18, 2018
The island’s electricity system has not totally recovered from the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria last September, when nearly 80 percent of power lines were knocked down. Last Thursday, a partial blackout left more than 800,000 people in the dark after a tree fell over parts of the grid during reconstruction efforts and debris removal, also conducted by Cobra Energy.
The cost of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s grid has been estimated at $17.6 billion. But Bruce Walker, an assistant secretary in the Department of Energy, recently told members of Congress that that number could change. Most of the repair efforts have been led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is said to have already spent $2.1 billion fixing the grid. Estimates of the total cost of Puerto Rico’s recovery from Maria have ranged from $40 billion to $95 billion.
Hurricane season starts on June 1, but the island is not prepared to face future storms, and debate continues over whether AEE should remain as a public entity or start a privatization process that could change the way power is generated in the territory. A complete modernization of the grid could take several years and cost tens of billions of dollars. And so far, restoring it has not included the resilience upgrades suggested by several energy experts after Maria.