Palo Seco Report Raises More Energy Questions in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – The continuing controversy over the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) executive director’s refusal to use generation units located at Palo Seco, a powerplant decommissioned in August due to structural integrity issues, continues to rage despite the distribution of a private report underscoring the frailty of units 3 and 4.
The report prepared by Island Structures Engineering PC (ISEPC), subcontracted by Sigma Energy Solutions, was commissioned by Prepa to analyze the structural integrity of oil-fired units 1, 2, 3 and 4–which have a 75-megawatt (MW), 75 MW, 200 MW and 200 MW capacity, respectively–after a registered 4.8-magnitude seismic event took place Aug. 18. The report is allegedly the third assessment by ISEPC; the previous two were conducted in March and April 2012, and in May and June 2016.
“Although inspections did not reveal damage from the recent seismic event, units 3 and 4 were observed to have sustained some buckling of the already weakened structure due to corrosion of gusset plates between the base of the columns and the diagonal basing,” the report reads.
“As pertains to units 3 and 4, the severity of the conditions is such that relatively minor storms could result in gross failure of the units. As an example the original units were designed to sustain 120 mph [mile per hour] winds; the optimistic range of the current capacity would be for only 60 mph winds,” the report concludes.
That assessment is being challenged by some engineers and electricians working at the Central San Juan power complex, which is now providing the base load for consumption of energy in the north of the island in the absence of power from primary lines that were used to provide electricity generated at the Aguirre and Costa Sur plants in the island’s southern region.
The devastated power authority decommissioned Palo Seco in August on grounds that it was obsolete and unsafe to operate. That the plant withstood the onslaught of the wind beast named María, which was packing sustained winds upward of 145 mph has forced some people to question Prepa Executive Director Ricardo Ramos’s assertions and the findings in the report.
“We believe that they are trying to sell that asset, and if they use it their argument that it doesn’t work will fall apart,” a Prepa employee said. “Remember they said that Palo Seco could not withstand 60 mph winds. Well, it did and they should use the units that are available to help balance the grid without it shutting down every other day.”
Time and again, Prepa’s Ramos has defended his reluctance to use the Palo Seco plant based on the ISEPC report. In his most recent allocution before the media on Saturday, Ramos made public that two 50 MW units to be installed on Palo Seco grounds, at a cost of $35 million, will help stabilize generation. That “power in a drum” strategy, which has been called into question because the site’s unit 2 by itself would provide 75 MW, could be the shape of things to come. The administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has made public that it intends to use microgrids in isolated areas.
The power grid has been spotty at best, as four blackouts have taken place in the weeks since power was first reignited utilizing hydro-gas units in Palo Seco, which was first reported by Caribbean Business on Oct. 9.
“It has to do with the load management and securing the connection,” Fernando Padilla, who heads Prepa’s project management office, told Caribbean Business. “We have the generation, and as the load and the demand come into place you get intermittent frequency.”
Prepa engineers, who have been shuttling back and forth between Central San Juan and Palo Seco, confirmed Padilla’s assertion. The Prepa generation brigades had another power outage in the north past midnight Saturday.
“We saw an opportunity to fix unit No. 9 at Central San Juan to provide greater balance as we continued to feed more of the areas coming online with transmission and distribution,” said another Prepa engineer who chose to remain nameless. “We were using units 7 and 4, and we wanted to balance generation and we tried to feed more with hydro-gas units at Palo Seco while we repaired the Central San Juan unit. During the switch, we lost the grid. We have had two incidences of human error in the early stages of this disaster; this time it was sound reasoning that backfired.”
As the generation brigades at Central San Juan continue to struggle to balance base load and distribution, the Rosselló administration continues to press for the creation of microgrids in devastated areas as parallel efforts by Whitefish Energy, one of the main contractors hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Prepa to rebuild and restore the grid, and the power utility’s brigades to connect Aguirre with San Juan are in the assessment stage.
— Whitefish Energy (@WhitefishEnergy) October 16, 2017
Prepa has a $550 million cash fund it can use as Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) funds that could total as much as $400 million become available. All told, members of Prepa’s board contemplate the utility will need more than $1 billion in the initial stage of recovery.
“We still have the $550 million cash fund set aside to start on repairs,” said the Prepa board member who chose anonymity. “We just got approved approximately $100 million and we want to ask for $150 million. We will need to get slightly over $1 billion to give us relief on the liquidity.”