Energy

Why Do the Lights Go Out In Puerto Rico?

Whether you live in Louisiana, California, New York or Florida, no one likes a power outage for long periods of time, especially after a natural disaster. For Puerto Ricans who have endured years of them, enough is enough.

The recent power outages in Puerto Rico seem more frequent since the start of the summer. Moreover, bad weather is no longer a predictor: Whether on sunny days or calm nights, the outages just keep happening. This is no trivial complaint either, as traffic lights stop working and hospital generators are strained, putting lives at risk. Economic output is hampered. Stores are forced to turn away customers. Everyday life is disrupted because of the constant outages. Everyone on the island, from families to business owners, must wait for relief. Meanwhile, the message from those in charge has remained consistent: Have patience.

Earlier this month, congressional hearings were held to seek an answer to a question: Why Don’t Puerto Ricans have reliable access to electricity? In the days since, several media outlets have picked up the story, wondering why, four years since Hurricane Maria, 3.2 million people on the island are still enduring an unreliable power grid. Puerto Ricans expect their electric power provider, whether public or private, to build a reliable power grid — but whether the utility company can chew gum and walk at the same time remains to be seen.

Last year, a partnership was signed by Puerto Rico’s government, its power authority and LUMA Energy to allow the private company to oversee the transmission and distribution of electricity on the island for a period of 15 years. Since LUMA took control this summer, the power outages have continued. One might excuse the people of Puerto Rico for being skeptical of promises about a better system in a few years. Haven’t they waited for normalcy long enough?

When members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources asked LUMA Energy’s CEO, Wayne Stensby, whether his company had enough experienced personnel to tackle the challenges in Puerto Rico, they found his assurances lacking. Facing similar questions from Puerto Rico’s legislature, LUMA executives were reticent.

It’s no surprise that the politicians who voted to allocate nearly $10 billion so LUMA could fix Puerto Rico’s power grid are now demanding answers. If the utility company is unable to oblige, maybe the House members should appeal to Stensby’s bosses — the CEOs of Quanta Services, Inc. and Canadian Utilities Limited, the two companies that own LUMA Energy — for answers.

With Congress earmarking billions of dollars for a new grid, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Puerto Rico’s power authority are getting involved to ensure that the funds are used properly. Under the last U.S. administration, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform questioned FEMA officials about Puerto Rico’s power grid and asked them to explain their efforts on the island.

Certainly, this committee and others would be interested to know what kinds of disclosure requirements FEMA is imposing on LUMA now. Congress would likewise want to be informed about whether LUMA can expediently and transparently use those billions of dollars to meet the House’s goal. What better way to sort all this out than by holding a hearing with the top brass from LUMA and FEMA?

The state of Puerto Rico’s power grid isn’t LUMA’s only current predicament. The company is also facing a crisis of confidence and needs to persuade the public that it is up to the job. Stensby has said that the territory’s power system is “arguably the worst in the U.S.” To build its credibility, however, LUMA would have been better served to lay out a transparent plan for cleaning up the mess rather than simply blaming the existing infrastructure — after all, the people already know it’s a mess!

For example, LUMA could coordinate with hospitals and other medical facilities that provide dialysis, or with schools and businesses, to prepare the community for scheduled outages. What will the company do about care facilities for seniors and children that require power to remain open? Has LUMA reached out to local mayors? During the ongoing pandemic, some jurisdictions have made efforts to reach out to seniors who are homebound, using ventilators or who store their essential prescriptions in special refrigerators. Just like infrastructure, trust must be built gradually and deliberately.

Why the lights are going out in Puerto Rico has really become a secondary question. Congress and the federal government have issued a $10 billion check so that Puerto Rico can build a new power grid. The question now is what Congress will do to make sure the lights stay on.

 

Max J. Trujillo is president of MJTPOLICY LLC, a strategic policy and government relations consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

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