A CRANE operated by a work crew trying to remove a fallen transmission tower in a rural part of Puerto Rico accidentally hit a high-voltage electric transmission line last week, plunging the entire island into darkness. That such a mundane accident caused a catastrophic loss of power — and had been preceded just a week before by an outage affecting half the island — shows how fragile and degraded Puerto Rico’s electrical system is. Federal and local officials need to show far more urgency in devising and building a more reliable and resilient system.
Last week’s island-wide outage came as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was touting the news that it had nearly completed restoring power to residents who have spent months living in the dark after the power grid was decimated by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20. Fewer than 3 percent of customers were without power, officials said, boasting that Puerto Rico was once again open for business. Hours later, the blackout occurred. Power was largely restored by midday Thursday, but residents worried it would just be a matter of time before the next outage.
Even before the Category 4 storm hit, Puerto Rico was vulnerable to blackouts, because of an aging electrical grid and abysmal management by the state-owned power authority. Emergency restoration work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the seven months since Maria has been limited, under federal law, to replacing, in kind, the system that was in place before the storm. That has generally meant line-for-line, pole-for-pole and wire-for-wire replacement. The replacement system hopefully will be stronger than the preexisting grid built with decades-old material, but it remains an obsolete system almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels, vulnerable to blackouts. Puerto Rico needs to rebuild the system, switching to an independent grid that includes new technologies and renewable energy sources.
Coming up with the billions that will be needed to do this work is the critical challenge facing the island. Federal funds are available, but the Trump administration is insisting on a formula that could place the bankrupt island on the hook for more of the costs. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló wants to privatize PREPA and attract private investment to the rebuilding effort. How realistic that is remains to be seen. Not helping the situation is the ongoing fight between local Puerto Rican officials and the federal oversight board on what steps need to be taken to get the U.S. territory’s house in order.
Meanwhile, a new hurricane season is approaching with many Puerto Ricans yet to recover from last year’s storm. The prolonged and continued power outages have exacted a toll. There are tangible impacts, including money spent on fuel for generators, household appliances ruined by power surges, schools disrupted and losses to businesses. Equally insidious is how the power crisis has worn down Puerto Ricans. They are afraid to buy more than a few days of food and have become resigned to cold showers, standing in line for gas, cooking over firewood. “Your day-to-day changes completely. This wears on you psychologically,” Leo Del Valle, who went three months without power after Maria, told the New York Times.
Imagine going without power for three months. Imagine knowing it’s only a question of when — not if — your lights will go out again. Imagine what would happen if these conditions existed in any other city, town or state in the United States. You would expect — no, demand — your government take action. The American citizens who live in Puerto Rico deserve the same.
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