Since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September, the island has seen a series of setbacks in its recovery and energy crisis.
After the storm decimated the electric grid in the U.S. territory, the bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority faced a barrage of criticism over its insufficient grid maintenance. Then, after repairs got underway, intense scrutiny of a $300 million contract with Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings compelled PREPA to cancel it.
Now, PREPA has asked for help from Florida, New York, the American Public Power Association (APPA), and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) to fill the labor gap.
Prior to the Whitefish contract cancellation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed a notice of intent to increase its contract with Fluor Corp. by $600 million, pending funds, to a sole-source contract of $840 million for repairs. According to Corps spokesperson Jeff Hawk, the decision was unrelated to the Whitefish contract, and the Corps is also investigating several other strategies.
Those efforts are likely to speed up grid restoration on the ground. But even with pending help from utilities and Fluor, the bungled Whitefish contract process has caused more problems for an island producing just over 30 percent of peak generation one month after the storm. The PREPA website has reported numbers labeled as both “AEE generation” and “AEE” -- an acronym for the island’s autoridad de energía eléctrica -- at different points during the recovery process. The two labels have raised questions over the speed of the recovery.
The Whitefish contract has stirred up controversy and questions in Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S., prompting an FBI probe and a review from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security.
Still, the power industry players working on relief are preaching patience.
“In these first few days, we get inundated with folks saying, ‘Why aren’t you moving fast enough?’” said Mike Hyland, senior vice president for engineering services at APPA. “I hate to use the word 'patience' in this situation -- but you need 48 to 72 hours to get the lay of the land.”
On Tuesday, PREPA's CEO, Ricardo L. Ramos Rodriguez, sent a letter to APPA and EEI asking for 600 full-time transmission and distribution line workers and corresponding equipment, a minimum of five helicopters, and the management, supervisory and administrative support to coordinate efforts. That same day, EEI and APPA responded that they would help with what Hyland calls “a very tall lift.” Earlier in October, PREPA declined assistance from APPA.
Hyland says he’s been fielding calls from sunup on the East Coast to sundown in the West to coordinate efforts now that APPA has been looped in to the relief efforts. But Puerto Rico presents unique geographic challenges.
Mutual aid agreements between utility companies and governments mean states and utilities often trade crews when additional hands are needed. But unlike on the mainland, crews can’t jump in a truck and drive down to the disaster, and Hyland says it would create more chaos to immediately put crews on a plane.
“The worst thing we could do right now is just start sending crews,” said Hyland. "Kind of like the old ‘too many chefs in the kitchen' idea, you need to methodically and systematically scale up.”
On Friday, Florida Governor Rick Scott will travel to Puerto Rico with a delegation of utility providers to offer aid. The State Emergency Response Team is also coordinating with utility partners to provide more personnel, equipment and expertise. Referencing the parallels between Hurricane Maria and Superstorm Sandy, PREPA’s CEO has also requested mutual aid from New York. Governor Cuomo said the state would send additional crews and equipment.
Those crews will join relief workers already stationed on the island. Some of the criticism lobbed at Whitefish centered on the firm’s two-person staff. But since its contract with PREPA began, the firm says it has sent hundreds of lineworkers to Puerto Rico.
Reuters reports there are now about 400 subcontractors working on the island and that Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, wants that number up to 1,000 crew members by November 8. According to Hyland, however, logistical challenges surrounding transport and equipment mean that mainland crews cannot drop in immediately to assist.
“Any time you have an island environment, you can never get the lights on fast enough,” said Hyland. “It’s a whole different animal.”
John G. Kassakian, an electrical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped lead a study at the university on the future of the electric grid, acknowledged that “the delay is certainly going to be critical” if a potential new contractor cannot get work underway quickly. But he said hiring the workers that have already arrived could allow repairs to continue even as the Whitefish controversy unfolds.
“The fact is that the [PREPA] did get people in there working to fix the grid. The question really isn’t whether they were able to get people to do the job,” said Kassakian. “From what I can see and hear, the folks who are on the ground are qualified linesman and mechanics. And if some new contractor can come in and move those people to the new contract, it seems to me they ought to be able to move right along.”
“But you’re dealing with a bureaucracy that isn’t going to move very fast,” Kassakian added. “That’s probably going to be the biggest obstacle.”
Hyland said that crews are dependent on planning from federal partners such as FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, which is heading up power restoration efforts, to coordinate transport, housing and materials.
Whitefish, meanwhile, announced on Tuesday it will begin preparations to leave Puerto Rico, though not immediately. According to the Montana-based company’s latest statement, its subcontractors may stay on the island and continue to work with PREPA or other contractors. The company has completed work on two major transmission lines thus far.
“We stand by our work and commitment to this mission and have not let the external distractions impact the pace of power restoration,” the company said in a statement. “Our commitment to the people of Puerto Rico means we will use every effort to transition the processes we have built with the PREPA team and to finish tasks at hand.”
Meanwhile, Congress and government agencies are looking into a possible connection between Whitefish and the Trump administration.
The logistical logjams demonstrate that a decade after Hurricane Katrina and five years after Superstorm Sandy, the U.S. is not entirely prepared for disasters of great magnitude -- especially on islands.
Industry experts are hesitant to comment on the speed or cost of repairs in Puerto Rico, since a great many factors, including terrain and transport logistics, impact the restoration of an island grid.
After Superstorm Sandy, it took Consolidated Edison just five days to return service to most of Manhattan. Ninety-five percent of customers in the state had power restored within 13 days. Puerto Rico’s island geography presents its own idiosyncratic challenges -- and the threat of worsening storms due to climate change means more threats are coming.
Puerto Ricans are frustrated. As criticism of the Whitefish deal exploded, workers there reported rocks and bottles being thrown at them.
Despite the intense scrutiny and criticism, the power industry says it will remain focused on the task at hand, and avoid the politics surrounding the Whitefish contract.
“We are in lockstep as an industry looking forward. I’m not going to second-guess what anybody did," said Hyland. “PREPA needs help. We’re going to find them help.”
***Correction: this article was corrected to reflect that Puerto Rico has reached just over 30 percent of its peak generating capacity, not that 30 percent of the island has power restored.