A look into Whitefish Energy, hired to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid
SAN JUAN – The contract awarded by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) for Whitefish Energy to erect the backbone of the island’s electrical system has raised serious doubts. The company’s apparent lack of experience, as well as Prepa’s scarcity of detail regarding Whitefish’s expertise has contributed to this perception.
Caribbean Business interviewed Prepa Director Ricardo Ramos, Whitefish CEO Andrew Techmanski and American Public Power Association (APPA) Vice President of Engineering Hyland Michaels to obtain a clearer picture about the company and its ability to carry out the work required to repair the powerlines that comprise the island’s power grid.
It should be noted that Michaels indicated that APPA was “not answering questions at this time” about the controversy and referred us to its website, where they have added a section of questions and answers on the matter.
What exactly is Whitefish Energy?
“People say Whitefish and think of a building, but Whitefish is people of flesh and blood, who left our families to come and work here and try to help in the reconstruction of the island,” said Joe, one of the Montana-based company’s 300 employees, while documenting the work performed by its crews.
“If I had not come with the company, I would surely have come alone to try to help. What’s happening on the island is very sad,” he added.
As CB spoke informally with the employee in a barren area between Guaynabo’s Santa Rosa II and III neighborhoods, which served as the base for the day’s mission, a helicopter flew by carrying a part of one of the transmission towers destroyed by María’s hurricane winds.
With surgeon’s precision, the pilot placed the part on the ground and then went to pick up eight of the workers who were still on a mountain where they had been working in the morning. Minutes later, he returned with the men, whose skin had evidently been exposed to the intense Caribbean sun.
They returned in pairs of two to hydrate themselves. One of them was carrying a portable speaker playing rock music, which surely had accompanied them while each of the towers that the hurricane severed was reassembled like a puzzle.
Hurricane María’s onslaught finally died down when it left Puerto Rico’s north coast on the afternoon of Sept. 20. In its wake were 105 of the 4,400 230-kilovolt (kV) lines that provide power to the island’s northern region. In addition, Maria felled 499 of the 14,315 115 kV lines, and 250 of the 73,920 38 kV lines that support the power’s distribution.
Whitefish Energy was incorporated in 2015 in Whitefish, Montana, and according to its website is backed financially by HBC Investments pand Flat Creek Capital, both Dallas-based firms. Montana press reported that Whitefish, along with Comtrafo Transformadores, which is based in Brazil, is working on a proposal to establish a plant to manufacture electric transformers in Montana, and is waiting for the federal government to clean up contaminated land where they intend to locate it.
“The grid was in very bad condition; we have been repairing it, but the majority is in places with very difficult access. This [the land in Guaynabo] is the easiest place we’ve had in the entire mission,” said Techmanski, Whitefish Energy’s chief executive officer.
The company has more than 300 employees in the field, some from Flathead, Montana, and others from Florida’s Jacksonville Energy Authority, Orlando Utilities Commission, Kissimmee Utility Authority and Lakeland Electric, which Whitefish subcontracted out.
By the end of October, some 500 people are expected to be working on grid repair, Techmanski said.
What qualifies Whitefish to do this work?
“Our company specializes in projects that are difficult to reach, with many in the mountains, projects in which helicopters are used. That experience is an asset to the work that needs to be done in Puerto Rico, where most of the transmission infrastructure is between mountains and there is limited access,” Techmanski explained.
Prepa Director Ricardo Ramos said Whitefish was responsible for coordinating the arrival in Puerto Rico of two Antonov cargo aircraft with bucket trucks, parts and heavy equipment to begin work on the island.
The company is using four of its own helicopters, in addition to Prepa’s, and support from National Guard Black Hawks.
“We are increasing [staff and equipment] aggressively every day. We’re working on several of the main transmission and distribution lines around the island,” the executive said. The towers, he added, which carry the 230-volt line that takes power generated at the Aguirre plant in Salinas to San Juan, were being repaired over the weekend.
This line spans huge utility towers from Salinas to Ponce, with a segment already repaired, and crosses the central mountain range to Cambalache in Arecibo, continuing via Manatí, Bayamón and Guaynabo, to Monacillos in San Juan.
Are you aware that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló promised that line would be powered over the weekend?
“I didn’t know about those parameters, but I see it is possible that we will finish soon to repair that line,” he said with a smile.
Which other jobs similar to this have you done?
“No project is the same as another; this one’s difficult because it’s on an island and the damage occurred mainly in the mountains. We’ve done other difficult projects; generally, access is a bit better, some hurricanes, restoration after fires and things like that, which present their own challenges.
“We just completed a project with FEMA in Chelan, Washington state. A project in the mountain, 100% accessed by helicopter. We literally finished it three weeks before the hurricane happened,” Techmanski said.
In Chelan, Whitefish was in charge of building a new distribution line that restored power to communications equipment, businesses and local government agencies. The job, which cost an estimated $534,000, according to Chelan government data, lasted four weeks and was funded by state and FEMA funds.
“In addition, we have a project in Arizona that’s in process and another that begins in January for the Department of Energy,” Techmanski said.
How did you find out Puerto Rico needed help?
“In our line of work, we look at storms very closely because we are usually the first ones called. We do two exercises internally––not only ourselves but all the contractors in this type of business––to prepare ourselves before a storm. First, we begin to have conversations before the storm and research whether we have resources. If we have the resources, we evaluate what we can provide because we know it’s a matter of time before someone calls,” he explained.
What is your experience in this field?
“I started in this industry 20 years ago, as a lineman affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. I’ve worked in various parts of the world doing special trainings and consulting for utilities, working on transmission and distribution lines, renewables and projects in different countries.”
His LinkedIn profile indicates Techmanski has held executive positions at Vancouver-based Arctic Arrow Powerline Group, Quanta Field Services and American Site Builders, and that he studied at Marylhurst University in Oregon.
The negotiation according to Prepa
Prepa’s executive director said Whitefish was one of several companies that communicated with the utility after Hurricane Irma, when the public corporation issued a request for proposals. In that process, 60 local companies also asked to be considered.
“We did an evaluation of the unit costs, which by the way are very similar in all the proposals that arrived,” Ramos said. However, for post-Irma jobs, only local companies were contracted.
When Hurricane Maria’s threat arose, Ramos said, Prepa again communicated with the two foreign proponents, but only Whitefish was willing to do the work under the conditions Prepa required.
“Before Maria arrived, we chose the two most economical, that we knew had the ability to do the work. The experience was verified. Just before Maria—the winds were already blowing—Whitefish informed us it had no problems with the terms and conditions that were submitted to them.”
Ramos explained that the other company “simply had a concern about the financial situation of the authority [Prepa] and requested a guarantee of payment that the authority was not in a position to accept, much less before the hurricane struck.”
“So, only Whitefish was asked to come to Puerto Rico. They were notified they would be mobilized the same day Maria was making landfall in Puerto Rico. Project managers came first to do damage assessment,” Ramos said.
According to its contract, Whitefish and Prepa reached a first agreement on Sept. 26, five days after Maria left the island’s shores.
“They flew down on their own to do a first evaluation and we were doing the same; that was the week after the hurricane, and the teams started arriving Oct. 4,” Ramos said.
Puerto Rico: 3,163 miles from Montana
Why Puerto Rico, which is so far from Montana?
“Looking at Puerto Rico was extremely personal. My family has been considering moving here for more than a year. I’ve been visiting the island for the past few years. I did some work for the energy company in St. Thomas, [USVI,] 15 years ago. We would come to Puerto Rico on weekends, because it was a bigger island and there were more things going on, and I fell in love with the island. So, for me, it’s extremely personal. In fact, my family had already bought the tickets to come to Puerto Rico in the winter to look for a house.
“So, I already had long-term plans to at least spend part of the year in Puerto Rico. Maybe that has mitigated some of the risk of coming, financially and logistically, because we want to see this island get back on its feet as fast as possible,” Techmanski said.
Techmanski’s family, his wife, son and an 8-week-old baby, are in Montana.
“It’s tough, many of my employees also have family and have decided to come here to do this job, and that says a lot. They’re aware that this is more than a project, it’s a mission. That’s our mantra, and we talk about it a lot in our meetings. In the end, people wonder why they are here, and the answer is because it has to be done. We’re here, and we are committed to the work that needs to be done.”
If you have the experience and the capability, to whom do you attribute the criticisms raised by this contract?
“Maybe you should ask those who have made those fake reports. We have mobilized hundreds of workers in a matter of weeks, we have a robust logistics team, we have about 12 people in Jacksonville, [Fla.,] who are managing the whole team and the people we bring in, plus the ones we have here. We are hiring staff and companies from here for various functions, translators, logistics personnel who know the island are helping us. And that has helped us accelerate the process.”
“At the moment, 100% of our operations have 100% of the needed materials. The need for materials hasn’t been a problem,” the executive said.
Prepa was criticized for not requesting APPA’s assistance.
Ramos explained that as Maria approached Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irma had just hit Florida and Hurricane Jose threatened the coasts of North and South Carolina, he made the decision to seek his own resources to address the emergency.
One example is the aid received by St. Thomas, USVI. According to information published on APPA’s website, the first aid provided through that organization to the neighboring island came on Oct. 7 and additional crews from the Northeast Public Power Authority arrived 10 days later, on Oct. 17. St. Thomas was hit hard by Hurricane Irma a week before Maria struck Puerto Rico.
Were you ever worried about Prepa’s financial situation?
“The truth is that at some point we asked ourselves that question, but Prepa is paying us and they have been a great ally. I meet with Ricardo Ramos practically every day. He is very passionate about the island and its people. It’s an inspiration, and he has some long-term plans to improve the electricity grid after the emergency is taken care of. Of course, the priority now is to energize the lines and get people back to normal and that they can start working again, but his plans are to improve the strength of the electric grid on the island.”
Are you aware of the responsibility you carry on your shoulders? That the continuity of businesses, schools, hospitals, everything on the island depends on power being restored.
“We feel it every day. It’s the reason our team practically doesn’t sleep. Our team works 16 and 20 hours every day, seven days a week. I leave the office between 1:30 and 2:30 in the morning and I’m back at 6:30 every day.”
After completion of the field work, teams meet at their operations center to discuss the work done, plan the next day and adjust logistics.
How can you contribute to the future transformation of the system that the governor has asked for?
“We have been in routine meetings every week, reviewing specifications and standards we use in the States[to build powerlines], especially those we use for conditions where the weight of snow can affect the system and could be similar to a hurricane-force-winds situation, to see if they can be used here. We have begun to send Prepa documentation and recommendations we have that have been successful elsewhere in the United States. And we will continue giving that information so they can decide what works better for them. We’re trying to collaborate as much as possible.”
Finally, how do you coordinate with Cobra Acquisitions, PowerSecure and Fluor Corp., the other companies contracted to repair the grid?
“I don’t know anything about their contracts; I really don’t think any of them are here yet, so we haven’t had to coordinate jobs yet. But we’re open to working with whomever is hired; we have collaborated with all the agencies, our group has provided them 100% of the information we have and we will continue to do so.”
According to official reports, PowerSecure should have had some 400 workers on the island since Oct. 20, while the contract with Fluor Corp. became official Oct. 16.
So far, the amount of the bill to restore the island’s grid totals $815 million in contracts between those granted by Prepa and those coordinated through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The federal entity has $577 million assigned for the effort.