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Prepa chief: Maria-type strike could lead to blackout of no more than 3 months

By on June 3, 2020

Prepa Executive Director José Ortiz (Courtesy)

Says public utility better prepared to avoid year-long outage in aftermath of 2017 hurricane

SAN JUAN – Contending that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) is better prepared this time around, the public corporation’s executive director said Tuesday that if the island were struck by another storm similar in strength to Hurricane Maria, the utility would be able to fully restore power in no later than two and a half months, instead of the year it took in the aftermath of the catastrophic 2017 hurricane.

“If an event similar to Maria were to come today, I do not see families being more than two and a half months without energy. I believe that everyone can be within this lapse and not almost a year,” Prepa Executive Director José Ortiz said during a hearing of the House Economic Development, Planning, Telecommunications, Public Private Alliances and Energy Committee, chaired by Rep. Víctor Parés Otero.

The committee is looking into Prepa’s hurricane preparedness, given that the current hurricane season, which began Monday, is forecast to be more active than usual.

Ortiz acknowledged that Prepa, which has 5,600 workers, has 400 fewer employees to address an emergency than it did when Hurricane Maria struck the island nearly three years ago.

In response to questioning by Parés Otero, the Prepa chief said that just before the Covid-19 crisis broke out in March, the utility had been hiring and training powerline workers.

Still, Ortiz said that Prepa would make up for the shortage of labor during a hurricane emergency by requesting help from stateside powerline workers. He said that such agreements have been established with American Public Power Authority and the New York Power Authority to bring in additional brigades to repair the electrical grid.

The Prepa chief said that the public utility has stocked up on enough supplies for workers to make the repairs needed to quickly get the system up and running. He said Prepa has an inventory of $138.5 million in materials distributed among 27 warehouses, including $98 million for power generation.

Moreover, the transmission system that crosses the island’s mountainous region has been reinforced with towers that can withstand winds reaching 170 miles per hour, Ortiz said, noting that these lines, which bring power from the southern plants producing the most energy to the most-populous north, suffered the most damage with Maria.

The utility has set aside a $50 million budget to set up an office charged with the preventive removal of vegetation, including tree branches, which can bring down lines in the event of a storm, Ortiz said, noting that this is responsible for 40 percent of blackouts. He said the utility has decreased this type of event by 25 percent.

The permanent presence on the island of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials on the island is another factor that can help restore the electrical grid in a timely manner, he said, noting that “if we need them, they are already part of the house.”

In addition, Ortiz said that Costa Sur plant’s unit 5 should go online on Aug. 14, which would provide 419 megawatts of power during one of the most critical months of the year, not only in terms of the hurricane season but also in seasonal high energy demand. The plant’s unit 6 should be connected to the grid by year’s end, giving more stability to the system, he said.

The 820-megawatt Costa Sur plant in Guayanilla was knocked out of operation by the January earthquakes. Ortiz said that repairs to the plants could cost some $25 million, which he said would be covered by FEMA and insurers.

Moreover, Ortiz revealed during the hearing that José Pérez Canabal, a former vice chairman of the Prepa governing board who was removed from his post in 2012, has had consulting contracts with the utility in effect until June 30. The current $130,000 contract was increased by $80,000 to $210,000 as part of the $1.2 million study of the state of the Costa Sur plant.

At the end of the hearing, Parés Otero said that while he believes Prepa is not prepared for a hurricane, due to the uncertain nature of its intensity, the utility has taken the measures “for a more rapid response.”

Call for probe into cancelled leasing of generators

Meanwhile, members of the Renewable Energy Now Alliance (AERA for its Spanish initials) and the Queremos Sol coalition called on local and federal authorities to look into the circumstances surrounding an attempt by Prepa to lease emergency generators for $70 million a month to cover a projected deficit of energy due to repairs of earthquake-damaged Costa Sur and Central Aguirre units.

Ortiz said last week that the bidding process for the leasing of the generators to produce 500 megawatts of energy was halted because the utility has 800 megawatts to cover increased summer demand for power.  He said that Aguirre’s unit 2 was already in operation.

AERA and Queremos Sol representatives said that following Ortiz’s announcement, they filed a request at the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (PREB) to revoke the approval of the request for proposals for the emergency generators, to ensure they are not reactivated in the future. They also called on PREB to supervise Costa Sur repairs, alleging that the utility extended the process in an attempt to force the leasing of the generators.  

“[PREB] and local and federal authorities should investigate what was behind the failed attempt to lease the generators. Prepa tried to force an unnecessary transaction, at an unsustainable cost, despite their own data projecting that they would have enough capacity to supply demand for the rest of the year, as the management finally acknowledged,” attorney Pedro Saadé, legal representative of AERA, said in a statement. “This cannot be left this way and just forget everything. The thorough investigation should include looking into whether any business obtained privileged information and whether incorrect information was submitted to [PREB].”

Attorney Ruth Santiago, representative of AERA and a member of Queremos Sol, said the organizations submitted a motion to PREB on May 20, sustained by new arguments and documentation, demanding that Prepa immediately adopt more cost-effective methods to address the peak demand for electricity during the summer.

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