Late last month, journalist Julio Ricardo Varela noticed a confusing discrepancy in how the Puerto Rican government was reporting electrical status on the online portal built to monitor the recovery post-Maria.
Many writers had been reporting the website's figure labeled “AEE” -- for Puerto Rico’s Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica -- as the portion of the island that had the lights turned on. But on Oct. 26, that label changed to “AEE Generation.”
Ricardo Varela confirmed with Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s office that the percentage actually represented the portion of peak generating capacity the island was producing, with much of that load likely going to critical infrastructure like hospitals and sites distributing essential supplies.
The label change, though more accurate, seemed odd, especially in light of the heightened scrutiny of recovery efforts due to the Whitefish scandal.
Then, on Nov. 2, Puerto Rico’s status site went down entirely. When it came back online, the label once again read just “AEE.”
This reporter spent that evening and the next morning shuttling between calls to the governor’s office (where the press line rang for 20 minutes with no answer), the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration office (where the line hung up after ringing for several minutes) and inconclusive conversations with a Puerto Rico Energy Commission spokesperson, who said PREC believed the number represented generation, but that it could also mean customers.
On Nov. 3, Gov. Rosselló’s spokesperson confirmed via Twitter that the percentage was still a measure of generation. That means that while the island is now close to reaching 50 percent generating capacity (its goal for Nov. 15), it’s unlikely that the same number of Puerto Ricans actually have grid-connected power. The spokesperson did not respond to questions about why the label had been changed.
According to Ben Kellison, director of grid research at GTM Research, it's plausible that the island’s utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), is able to communicate with its substations but not most of its meters.
“This would make it very hard to know the full extent of who is restored and who is not, but they would be able to measure load at the substations,” said Kellison, adding that monitoring generating capacity reflects a more positive outlook. "It also ensures that they can make the most of their generation fleet. It's my understanding that it suffered very little damage -- and [it] allows them to take more credit in the public eye for work done, while focusing on critical customers.”
Confusion over the website’s wording may seem like small potatoes compared to the humanitarian crisis on the ground, but the percentage does reflect the dire situation of those without electricity. Plus, it speaks to larger issues at work in Puerto Rico: a swath of questions about how fast recovery can occur, whether money is being apportioned correctly, and if those in power are handling the crisis as they should be.
“I just had power for the first time last night,” Luis Aviles, a law professor and former president of PREPA’s governing board who left the utility in 2009, told me earlier this month.
Aviles, like many who have commented on the situation in Puerto Rico, attribute the lurching recovery to a perfect storm of difficulties. He cited PREPA’s dearth of employees, low morale, bankruptcy, lack of materials, and its decade-old collective bargaining agreement, which was last re-signed when he still worked there. Undergirding all of it is Puerto Rico’s larger economic struggles and the unfulfilled promises of PROMESA -- a law establishing the island’s oversight board.
Aviles also raised questions about the Whitefish contract, which has converted the situation in Puerto Rico from a devastating tragedy to a full-blown political scandal. Aviles said the contract with Whitefish goes against basically all norms set out by PREPA. He said the board did not review the contract before it was signed, nor did the utility’s law firm. Calls to a PREPA spokesperson for confirmation went unanswered. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also said it did not review the contract.
“It violates all principal tenets of corporate law and corporate governance,” Aviles said. “The written rules were not followed; the unwritten rules of prudent management were not followed. The basic rules of corporate governance and corporate law were not followed. Whether that is pure incompetency or there was an intentional element to that, we’ll have to find out. Investigations will reveal the reasons behind that.”
Several federal investigations, including by the FBI, are now underway.
On Monday, a judge rejected a proposal to place former Air Force Col. Noel Zamot at the head of the utility to oversee the rebuild. That’s a win for Gov. Rosselló and the Puerto Rican government, which viewed the replacement as an overreach. But PREPA must still confront a gargantuan recovery under the scrutiny of a watchful public.
Ingrid Vila Biaggi, a civil engineer who served as chief of staff for Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, said the situation shows a structural collapse of not just infrastructure, but also government.
“As a former public servant, it shows, to me, a blunt disrespect to the inherent responsibilities of public service,” said Vila Biaggi. “What we’re seeing today in this devastation is obviously the result of an extreme weather event. But the frailty of the system and the incapacity for an adequate response is the result of political party intervention and a continued intention to weaken PREPA in order to justify privatization of the system.”
Advocates of privatization had already been staring down PREPA before the hurricane. In the coming months, the handling of this disaster may grease the wheels for Puerto Rico's financial control board to move forward with that plan.
In the meantime, reporting from The New York Times revealed that Whitefish’s contractors are getting paid less than $100 an hour while PREPA has been billed $319 -- raising further questions about where the extra money has gone. On Thursday, a transmission line that Whitefish repaired also failed, again cutting off many from the grid. The line has now been repaired.
Crews arranged under mutual aid agreements are also arriving from states such as Florida and New York, which plan to provide 3,000 workers by Nov. 21. The clean energy industry, including companies such as Tesla and sonnen, and trade organizations like the Solar Energy Industries Association, have begun mobilizing supplies and workers.
Last week, The Solar Foundation, in partnership with the Clinton Foundation, Operation Blessing, Direct Relief and J/P HRO, launched the Solar Saves Lives initiative, to coordinate the delivery and installation of donatedsolarequipment to areas in need.
Efficient repairs and support from all sides is imperative, according to Vila Biaggi, but so is a future-oriented focus. She said the way in which the island answers its energy crisis will have larger ramifications on how Puerto Rico moves forward as a government and a community.
“The window of attention Puerto Rico has right now due to the hurricane can help us either leap into the 21st century with renewables and democratization of the grid, or it can bury us in old, 20th-century fossil fuel contracts,” she said. “The path forward in our electric system should be nothing short of an energy revolution.”
As for the embattled utility? “It’s more complicated than a storyline. [...] No one -- I mean no one -- could be prepared to experience a hurricane like we did,” said Aviles. “Unfortunately, I don’t see PREPA surviving this.”