Puerto Rico electric utility power innovation backfires
SAN JUAN – Patchwork innovation employed by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s generation team inside the Central San Juan powerplant feeding the greater metropolitan area in the aftermath of Hurricane María backfired on them Sunday morning, provoking a massive power outage to many of the 10 percent who had power.
The Prepa brigades had been successful in challenging conventional wisdom after the storm when they utilized two units from the Palo Seco plant—once closed, and rendered obsolete—to reignite Central San Juan, which had to be shut down because all distribution lines were down. If powerplants do not distribute electricity at the same rate that they generate power, units auto-protect and shut down.
“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 on line with transmission and distribution,” said one 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 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. We are back on line.”
The Prepa power brigades had been successful in using two Palo Seco units to kick-start again after it was forced to shut down after transmission and distribution lines were left unavailable to the powerplant in Northern Puerto Rico. “We went to one of the two hydro-gas units that were available and fired from there to the No. 7 unit at Central San Juan,” the Prepa engineer said.
“The charge was enough for us to generate some 30 megawatts of electricity with which we are generating enough power to supply areas that have had lines repaired. Right now the hospitals are a priority. There are some substations that have power but there are too many large concrete poles down,” he explained.
The creativity being employed in the north will have to do for now as many of the lines coming from the Costa Sur and Aguirre powerplants are still down.
Many of the Prepa veterans who had dealt with challenges in the aftermath of hurricanes Hugo and Georges are now long gone as a consequence of austerity measures that were implemented in the restructuring of the bankrupt monopoly’s $9 billion debt load.
“We are a skeleton crew; where we had 24 workers we now have four, and now we need help but those who have arrived need to consult with the people who know the grid. Don’t press buttons before asking “what’s this button for?’ Let’s work together.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a press conference last week during which it informed it would be helping to establish a plan to restore Puerto Rico’s torn transmission and distribution lines. Many citizens in the dark are asking when will they commence the hard work as many of the restored lines in the north have been put up by private brigades that are assisting Prepa’s skeleton crews. To date, there are seven private companies assisting Prepa in restoring power.
According to preliminary reports, Prepa, which is one of the largest dues-paying members of the American Public Power Association, reportedly has yet to request help from the organization that groups some 1,100 utilities across the United States. “The request for help was not activated,” said APPA spokesperson Meena Dayak. “We have people who are ready to help.”
Regarding why the local government declined to accept help from private power brigades to restore the electric grid, Rosselló said some of the firms that approached it before María requested a down payment and the government had the option of getting aid from USACE.
In a statement Sunday, the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said the association declined supporting the island’s power restoration efforts.