Power-generation system survived, but not high-voltage lines
Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the September 14 print edition of Caribbean Business.
SAN JUAN — Although mighty Hurricane Irma barely touched Puerto Rico’s eastern and northern shores, the tropical storm winds that hit the island from late afternoon on Sept. 6 to the early morning hours of Sept. 7 proved to be powerful enough to affect the already battered infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa).
Meanwhile, as of the morning of Sept. 8, there were still 970,000 customers without power—which highlights the vulnerable condition of the bankrupt public corporation’s infrastructure.
Caribbean Business sources working in Prepa’s generation areas confirmed that Puerto Rico’s main powerplants are functional. However, power generation was interrupted since the hurricane tore down 230,000-, 115,000- and 38,000-volt powerlines throughout the island.
“Right now, there is generation; the thing is we don’t have places to send it. To explain it in another way, the power-generation plants are the heart and the powerlines are the veins. The heart needs the veins to be functional so blood can be pumped; the same thing happens with power: we can generate enough power to energize Puerto Rico, but if I don’t have the veins, I’m unable to do it,” explained the source who requested anonymity, but has worked in Prepa’s power generation area for 26 years.
“Generation is fine, all the infrastructure was spared; what we don’t have is where to send it. If the lines were in good condition, we would have energized the entire island, but the process is slow because since we do not have [enough] personnel, things are moving slowly,” he explained, adding that the substations’ linemen were tackling the situation by first repairing the big lines that carry 115,000 volts and 230,000 volts to link the north to the south and generate more power to more Prepa customers.
The contact explained that, for example, as of Sept. 8, the San Juan powerplant only had one of its generators operating due to the lack of high-voltage lines in service.
Another source from the power-generation area—who also requested anonymity—confirmed the information, assuring that these high-voltage lines suffered the greatest amount of damage upon Irma’s passage over the island, but assured that as of the morning of Sept. 7, Prepa crews were dealing with downed powerlines and affected isolators. However, the source also admitted that the number of substation personnel was barely enough to handle the problem.
Both sources said the good news is that repairing the power grid does not depend on fully replacing the lines but rather repairing them.
“The lines are there; it’s not a matter of replacing them but repairing them. The thing is that we have to go on patrol to fully assess all the lines and verify their condition; we’re doing that right now. The important thing is that they are not lying on the ground. We have to check that there are no trees touching those lines because that’s where the problem is, as powerlines have to be clear and then you can energize,” one source explained.
Three-week timeframe could be ‘exaggerated’
However, neither source was able to specify when the electrical-power system could be re-established throughout the island, as neither of them work directly in the substations area. Both assured that the three-week timeframe estimated by Prepa Executive Director Ricardo Ramos is somewhat exaggerated.
“I don’t think it’s going to be three weeks; it’s going to be a shorter amount of time. He [Ramos] must have said that so as not to create pressure and establish a margin of error. The problem is that we can’t have accidents and it’s important not to be in a hurry to energize until all the lines are surveyed and we’re sure that they are not impacted by trees or anything else so as not to create a dangerous situation,” one of the sources said.
On the morning of Sept. 8, Ramos publicly stated that Irma’s strong winds managed to disable almost all transmission and distribution powerlines comprising thousands of miles of high-voltage cables that transport electricity to the public corporation’s more than 1.5 million customers.
“The main limitation is the transfer of energy from south to north. As the people of Puerto Rico historically know, most of our generation [capabilities], for historical reasons, is located in the south and most of the consumption is in the north. The fact is that we lost many of our 230,000-volt lines, which are the main transmission arteries,” Ramos said in a radio interview on WKAQ 580, saying Prepa was working to restore service as soon as possible.
“I don’t want my employees to be pressured. I pressure them but what I don’t want is for the people on the street, every time a date the executive director has given has been unmet, to begin cursing at them [Prepa employees]. You know, they start to pressure them and that results in accidents and unsafe operations because their greatest commitment is to try to get the job done as quickly as possible,” he added.
As Prepa’s executive director said, eight out of the nine 230,000-volt transmission lines were currently damaged, as were the 115,000-volt transmission lines. Therefore, Ramos predicted it would take about three weeks to get the service restored for most customers, while for customers in remote areas, it could take up to three months.
As of Monday morning, 371,193 Prepa clients (25.26%) still had no electricity service and the utility reported that it has managed to re-establish service to 74.74% of its 1.5 million customers. However, hundreds of people continued to denounce through social networks and the press the lack of power in parts of the San Juan metro area such as Santurce and Hato Rey, as well as other parts of the island.
Caribbean Business tried unsuccessfully to obtain more detailed information on the pattern of complaints from Sept. 7 to Sept. 11.
The president of the Irrigation & Electrical Workers Union (Utier by Spanish initials), Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, publicly denounced Prepa’s alleged contracting of private companies to re-establish electricity on the island while no union staff was reportedly being used.
“It strikes us that overnight, after we have given our best, private companies appear by the work and grace of God in this process…specifically in San Juan, not in the mountains, or the barrios,” said Figueroa Jaramillo in a radio interview. He also charged Prepa senior management with manipulating public opinion to raise support for privatizing the agency.
Meanwhile, Caribbean Business sources at Prepa agreed with the complaint, saying that for this reason, restoring electricity service will take longer than usual.
“They are leaving the work to contractors, but they will not start working until Prepa signs contracts, while Prepa sends us home instead of putting us to work,” denounced the source who asked for anonymity.