The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even before Fiona, Puerto Rico’s power grid was poised for failure

Widespread outages reveal flaws in electrical grid that has been slow to modernize

A destroyed banana crop field after Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico on Sept. 18. (Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters)

The hurricane winds that knocked out power to the entire island of Puerto Rico over the weekend encountered an electrical grid that experts liken to a house of cards: a fragile, decrepit, patchwork system running on old equipment that has failed to substantially modernize since the U.S. territory’s deadliest storm, Hurricane Maria, swept through five years before.

The state-run utility that is responsible for electricity generation is bankrupt, and mediation to restructure its $9 billion debt to bondholders ended without a deal last week. Luma Energy, the private consortium that was hired in 2020 to handle transmission, has failed to satisfy critics, as power outages have increased in duration this year even apart from destructive storms, according to a report last month by the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau.

And a major plan to modernize the island’s electricity system, funded with billions from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency as a response to Hurricane Maria — which killed about 3,000 people and left some residents out of power for nearly a year — has been slow to get started.

Sin Luz, Life without power

“Given all that, it shouldn’t be surprising that we are where we are,” Sergio Marxuach, policy director at the Center for a New Economy, a Puerto Rico-based think tank, said by phone from his home on the island’s north coast, which was running on generator power.

“What we’re seeing right now is a direct consequence of that failure to act” since Hurricane Maria, he said.

Fiona made landfall on Sunday afternoon with 80 mph winds and quickly knocked out power to more than 3 million people — or the entire population of Puerto Rico. Luma Energy officials on Monday said power has been restored to just more than 100,000 people by Monday afternoon, including in the San Juan metropolitan area, at the city’s main hospital campus and the island’s largest airport, but the company had yet to offer a detailed assessment of the damage.

The extent of Fiona’s destruction remains unclear. The storm’s outer bands continue to drop copious amounts of rain and threaten to swell waterways already breaching their banks and causing landslides in the mountains. Some areas of Puerto Rico’s big island and its eastern islands are not yet accessible, officials said. Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said at least two people have died.

Puerto Rico Adjutant General Jose Reyes, who commands the territory’s National Guard, said Monday that his troops have performed more than 30 search-and-rescue operations in 25 municipalities across the island. More than 1,000 people had to be rescued from flooded homes, particularly along the southern coast in the town of Salinas, where one of the largest operations brought 400 people to safety.

In Yabucoa, Mayor Rafael Surillo Ruiz said he had never seen flooding like what his community had experienced in the last 24 hours. Roads and bridges that had recently been repaved were swept away by engorged rivers. At least two barrios saw waters rise several feet, and municipal workers spent all night and morning rescuing trapped vulnerable residents, including carrying the bedridden elderly from their soaked beds, he said.

“It’s painful that we are here again,” Surillo Ruiz said. “Now we are in not one but two recovery processes: what was left over from Maria, where we haven’t made much progress, and now we have to add everything that happened with this hurricane.”

President Biden approved an emergency disaster declaration Monday, and top officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency pledged a more effective response than five years ago, when the agency acknowledged systemic failures in the aftermath of Maria.

Fiona sent generators buzzing throughout the island, as residents defaulted into the routines they learned during Maria. Days before forecasters detailed Fiona’s path, anxiety levels rose and the rush to prepare began. Instead of heading into a weekend of rest and relaxation, thousands filled up their gas tanks, shopped for essentials and steeled their nerves against the trauma that would undoubtedly be triggered by the storm.

“Even a hurricane that’s a lot smaller in comparison brings back those dark memories and those feelings of stress,” said Mariana Ferré, a 23-year-old medical student from San Juan. “The messages I’m getting from all my friends is, ‘I have PTSD.’ ”

Maria’s ravaging winds severely weakened Puerto Rico’s already outdated energy infrastructure when it struck the island in September 2017. Since then, habitual outages, which can often extend into weeks, have instead become the norm.

“That’s how sad it is,” Ferré said. “It’s so normalized, and it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be normal for people to lose power all the time. People literally depend on electricity to live.”

Puerto Rico’s fragile power grid has been at the center of recriminations from protesters, customers and utility union members who have called on Pierluisi to cancel the government’s contract with Luma Energy. In recent weeks, Pierluisi levied his first public remarks critical of the company, echoing what for months has been the cry of critics bemoaning the company’s performance.

The U.S.-Canadian power consortium has struggled more than a year after taking over operations of Puerto Rico’s transmission and distribution lines with public perception, frequent brownouts and at least one total blackout. Protests outside its San Juan offices are regular weekly events, and demonstrators with the movement “Fuera Luma,” or “Out With Luma,” are as ubiquitous in Puerto Rico as the chant of the coqui, the island’s famous frog.

Luma spokesman Hugo Sorrentini said the company’s crews have been hampered by extensive flooding across the island but that some 1,500 utility workers are “ready to respond” to the outages. Helicopters haven’t been able to access some of the areas where power lines are down in the mountains as heavy rains persist, he said. Customers who have been restored so far mostly rely on underground power lines.

“There’s roadblocks, there’s flooding, there’s rivers that just overflowed,” he said. “It’s a very difficult situation, and it’s very complicated, especially with access. But for the next couple of days, we’re going to keep working on and assessing and restoring as best we can.”

One of the major vulnerabilities of Puerto Rico’s electrical system is the cross-country transmission system. Power generation takes place primarily in the southern coast of the island, where giant aging power plants send electricity through transmission lines that run across the mountainous interior. The towers stand atop steep hillsides, looking over ravines, and continue to the populous north to where most of the energy is consumed. During storms, those lines regularly fail.

After Fiona, winds knocked out power to at least four of the island’s major transmission lines. Luma has said it put 200 utility workers in place ahead of the storm and called up 70 more through a support brigade to respond to the outages.

The problems with Puerto Rico’s electrical grid go back decades and are a source of ongoing agony for many residents. Prices are high, and electricity is still predominantly supplied by fossil fuels, including oil and diesel, even though local laws mandate a transition to renewable energy in coming years.

Eduardo Bhatia, who was president of Puerto Rico’s Senate until last year, said the widespread blackouts from Hurricane Fiona make it clear once again that Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, failed for decades to invest in modernizing the grid, running on infrastructure he compared to “cars from Cuba — equipment that is 40, 50 years old.”

“How they used the money is a great mystery, but they did not do the investments to strengthen the grid,” he said.

Bhatia added that the storm also showed how desperately the island needs an overhauled energy grid. Since 2020, Congress has appropriated some $12 billion for the project — the largest allocation of FEMA funds in the agency’s history. But bureaucratic delays have hobbled the work of modernizing the grid.

“They have to speed it up,” Bhatia said.

Luma Energy officials say the fragile power grid has long been mismanaged and neglected by PREPA, creating unprecedented challenges for its workforce. But the 3,000-employee company, a consortium between North American companies Atco and Quanta Services, insists that the system is in better shape than ever and that it’s set to spend billions in federal funds to rebuild and harden the grid.

“The system has been declining for decades. The system itself was already in very bad shape,” Mario Hurtado, Luma’s chief regulatory officer, said in an interview days before Hurricane Fiona. “PREPA was the worst-performing utility in America, far and away.”

The corruption, unreliability and failures of PREPA are well-documented in congressional hearings, expert testimony and personal experiences. The public utility, which still controls power generation in Puerto Rico, is in bankruptcy and helped drive the U.S. territory’s decade-long financial crisis. Negotiations to restructure $9 billion in debt faltered yet again last week.

In 2016, a federally appointed fiscal oversight board took control of Puerto Rico’s finances and the long-held desire of local politicians to privatize the power grid began to take shape. But lax regulation, an overly generous contract and self-dealing plagued the privatization process from the start, critics say.

Luma Energy took over Puerto Rico’s transmission and distribution system in June 2021 after a year of studying one of the most complicated power grids in the country.

An arrest warrant, a fugitive CEO: Puerto Rico’s effort to privatize its electrical grid is off to a rocky start

Thousands of PREPA workers took jobs with Luma, but hundreds of experienced, unionized line workers refused job offers after learning they would lose hard-fought benefits. Luma set up a training and apprenticeship program to fill up their ranks, but the lack of experience in its ranks has been a point of contention for politicians and experts alike.

Luma officials brushed off the criticism, saying they’ve trained hundreds of people for emergency response, rehabbed customer service centers and upgraded substations, installed thousands of new lines and poles, repaired response vehicles and drilled with government agencies repeatedly.

“The whole idea is that if there is another storm, we will be much better prepared and those assets will be in better shape to resist that sort of an onslaught if it’s high winds or flooding,” Hurtado said. “If there’s outages, we are able to restore service more quickly.”

In the past year, Luma says it has reduced outages by 30 percent and connected 25,000 people to rooftop solar panels.

“We are not in the same place as we were with Maria,” said the company’s regional manager of strategic initiatives, Kathy Roure, one of an estimated 1,500 employees who transitioned from PREPA to Luma.

But criticism of the company has still been mounting. Last month, Pierluisi publicly criticized Luma Energy for the first time, saying he was “not satisfied” with the company’s performance.

Pierluisi said he recognized that the electrical system was “fragile and obsolete,” but he said it was “Luma’s responsibility to operate it under the critical and emergency state in which it finds itself.”

The government set a deadline of Nov. 30 to consider whether to extend Luma’s contract for 15 years.

“I think this disaster’s going to kind of force the government’s hands,” said Marxuach, of the Center for a New Economy think tank, about the ongoing outages.

PREPA no longer has transmission or distribution divisions since the privatization, and the utility company doesn’t have the employees or equipment to do the job now, he said.

“Whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with Luma — at least until the system is brought back online,” he said. “I mean, it would be crazy to change horses in midstream right now.”

Hours before Tropical Storm Fiona turned into a hurricane, thousands of households reported outages. By Sunday morning, all of Puerto Rico was in the dark.

“It’s one thing to drive an old car if you know how to drive it,” said Angel Figueroa Jaramillo, the president of PREPA union workers, who was the among the first to report that a total blackout was underway that was affirmed by the Puerto Rico governor 30 minutes later. “It’s another to try to drive an old car if you’re not familiar with it.”

Figueroa Jaramillo, a fierce Luma critic, said his union sent a letter weeks ago warning the company and government officials that vegetation growth on power lines was imperiling systems. His workers know that in a tropical island, trees and vines need to be trimmed regularly to avoid interruptions. It’s one example of the many ways, he said, Luma’s inexperience is compromising the power grid.

For its part, Luma says it is determined to not only restore power, but also improve the grid as quickly as possible. Of the 209 improvement projects planned out with FEMA, 14 of them were already under construction when Fiona made landfall.

“Obviously with this storm hitting us today, some of the advances we have might be reversed,” Luma spokesman Sorrentini said. “But we are committed to transforming the electric system in Puerto Rico. We’re here for the long haul.”

María Luisa Paúl and Reis Thebault contributed to this report.