Puerto Rico power utility being attacked by all sides, utility director says
SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) Director Ricardo Ramos said Wednesday he would only leave his position if the U.S. District Court grants a request to allow the fiscal oversight board’s nominee, Revitalization Coordinator Noel Zamot, to become the utility’s chief transformation officer.
At a news conference to provide an update on the reconstruction of the island’s power grid and plans to transform the public utility and make it more resilient, Ramos said he will not leave his position just because the fiscal board wants to appoint Zamot at the helm of the utility.
“I will not resign. I’ll stay unless some kind of order comes through the legal channels that says I’m no longer executive director, that complies with Puerto Rican laws and Prepa’s law, and if that happens, in that way, I will gladly resign and leave,” Ramos said.
A hearing is slated next week before Judge Laura Taylor Swain to address the board’s request to place Zamot, who does not have experience managing power utilities, as Prepa’s CTO, a request Ramos described as imprudent and out of line.
The government, fuel-line lenders and even Prepa’s bondholders have come out against Zamot’s appointment, arguing that the Promesa federal law does not contain language that allows the board to appoint a trustee over a government entity.
While the fiscal board in the past rejected attempts by bondholders to put Prepa under receivership, board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko said Tuesday that after Hurricane María destroyed the island’s grid, putting Zamot at Prepa’s helm will ensure its transformation.
Jaresko asked the House Committee on Natural Resources to clarify Promesa so it can name a CTO for Prepa, contending the utility has served the people poorly for decades.
Ramos said he believes that because Prepa is “the weakest link,” the public corporation is being fought on all fronts. The public corporation is a victim of “a political war” between the U.S. parties, Ramos said, referring to the scandal over the utility’s decision to grant a $300 million contract to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a small Montana firm that reportedly has links to officials from President Trump’s administration.
The utility director also said it is being attacked by the fiscal board, which in Tuesday’s congressional hearings gave a grim picture of Prepa. Zamot has said the board is looking at privatization as one of the options to transform Prepa. He also said he would create five new positions in Prepa and have his own board of advisers, suggesting that he will not rely on current staff.
Prepa is being attacked by creditors, who Ramos said have spread false information and were minimizing the damage sustained by the grid from María. “I think they must be talking about Jamaica or a Greek island, because that’s not here,” he said.
Regarding Prepa’s transformation plan, Ramos said it consists mainly of the development of distributed generation and micro grids; providing stable power at a low-cost; building modern, efficient and world-class plants; complying with environmental regulations; and, fostering economic development in Puerto Rico.
“We intend to transform Prepa and turn it into a modern, efficient and successful company that responds to the demands of our residential, commercial and industrial customers and goes alongside our island’s socioeconomic development. In this effort we will include the tools provided by the governor’s Plan for Puerto Rico, in particular the public-private partnerships in the area of power generation,” the official said.
Ramos said he is slated to testify next week at another congressional oversight hearing on the island’s recovery. He said he did not testify in Tuesday’s hearings because he was too busy managing the grid-repair work underway, adding he had already met with the members of Congress who visited the island last week.
Because of his busy schedule, he said, he was unprepared to testify at the hearing. After speaking with the governor and with his legal advisers, he asked to be excused from the hearing, which he also said was scheduled at an inappropriate time.
Photos of Ramos circulated social media showing him at a Santurce bar with other utility workers Tuesday night. Ramos explained he was there because he had seen what seemed like a fire from his office while Prepa workers were repairing a grid in the Trastalleres area. Nelson Vélez, a Prepa engineer, said Ramos called him with concerns about the situation and they all moved to the site along with fire fighters and police.
After energy was restored to the area, they said they had to take shelter in the closest business, a bar, because of a sudden downpour. Ramos said several people asked to have their photographs taken with him and other Prepa employees. Vélez said it is not the first time Ramos visits an area to supervise work.
“This is the first time we have a director who leaves his office to accompany us in our work and provide support when we work to repair a breakdown or to restore electrical service to the people of Puerto Rico,”Vélez said, adding no one was drinking alcohol and that it was not a party as some people were led to believe.
Ramos said he will meet the goal of 50% generation by Nov. 15.
“This week, we received part of the $50 million we ordered in materials, the barge and supplies for PowerSecure, 400 workers from the Fluor Corp., more than 200 PowerSecure workers, another 400 from Cobra Energy, as well as a cargo load of more than 260 40-foot-high poles have all arrived,” Ramos said in a press conference.
He added the mobilization of 3,000 workers as part of the mutual agreement with the American Public Power Association (APPA) and Edison Electronic Institute.
“To meet the goal of 95% [generation] by December 15, we requested from the governors of the states of Florida and New York line workers specialized in mountainous terrain, five helicopters, personnel to coordinate the logistics of the work, as well as materials, resources and equipment,” the director said.
Electric power generation is currently at about 40% of capacity 49 days after the hurricane made landfall.