Puerto Rico electric utility puts infrastructure improvement plan on track
SAN JUAN – After the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), Ricardo Ramos, publicly admitted the dire state of Puerto Rico’s electrical system, the head of the public utility said the announcement was not made to alarm the population ahead of the most active month of the hurricane season, but to announce an aggressive work plan that will be established to address the existing challenges.
And despite saying the announcement was not made to signal out those responsible, Ramos stressed that the current administration was handed an electrical infrastructure that was lacking maintenance and 40% of its fleet in poor condition, all helicopters under repair, plant structural failures and 2,893 fewer staff, among other problems.
However, the Prepa director announced that since taking over the management of the corporation in March, a strategic plan was established to reduce service disruptions and improve its quality.
As part of the plan’s initiatives, Ramos revealed that an aggressive tree-pruning program was immediately established in order of priority, fleet vehicles were repaired, and an agreement was reached with the Puerto Rico National Guard to use its helicopter for emergency work during this hurricane season.
“Imagine we are a taxi company and that our vehicles are 1952 Cadillacs. They are nice, well-painted, the engine works well but it is still a 1952 vehicle and when it breaks down it is very difficult to get parts and, if you get them, they are expensive, and [the vehicles] use large amounts of gas, and those are our challenges,” he said.
Ramos identified the two main causes attributed to the lack of maintenance of Prepa’s infrastructure. The first is the public corporation’s lack of liquidity, and the second is the substantial loss of its workforce over the past five years, whether from retirement or from migration for better job opportunities abroad.
The official also said the useful life of most of Prepa’s equipment has lapsed and is the reason for the frequency of temporary blackouts in several areas of the island.
“In recent weeks we have had many situations where the conductor simply falls due to corroded parts. However, there have been no general blackouts because the technical staff we have is aware of the situations,” he said.
However, Ramos said Puerto Rico is not going through an energy crisis because there is enough energy to provide to its customers.
“Energy crisis is defined in many ways. For example, that term tends to be used when there is not enough energy to provide to customers, and that is not our case. We have enough energy to provide our customers, so I would not call it an energy crisis,” he said.
Among the projects Prepa plans to establish is an interconnection with the neighboring islands so the corporation can sell them energy at the local price, which fluctuates at 20 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), compared with 40 cents per kWh currently paid by those jurisdictions.
“That will certainly help stabilize the decline in consumption, but the drop in consumption is not bad. If we want to be a sustainable island we have to learn to live with less consumption, that’s clear,” he said.
Also, Ramos said there is a plan to promote the electrification of fleet vehicles, although he clarified that the initiative is still “in its infancy.”
Those and other projects, he said, will renew the utility’s transmission and distribution system and are a requirement to ensure its reliability, but said the changes will take time and cannot be implemented “overnight.”
With respect to September, the hurricane season’s peak month, Ramos said a contingency plan is in place with personnel assigned to work areas, inventory in warehouses and coordination with U.S. power companies to provide assistance.