Puerto Rico’s Electric Grid Is On-Again, Off-Again

When it starts to rain in San Juan, Ramón Luis Nieves doesn’t know how long it will be until the power goes out—or when it will be restored. According to the former member of the Puerto Rican Senate, power outages are a part of daily life, burning out appliances, leaving businesses in the dark, and disrupting access to life-sustaining medical devices.

“Sometimes when it rains a little bit, the power goes out,” Luis Nieves says, “so when we encounter a hurricane, we don’t know what’s going to happen for sure. Everybody here is traumatized after Maria. The experience was devastating to us.”

The Category 4 hurricane left residents without electricity for months, and in some more remote regions, it took almost a year to restore power. Now, Puerto Rico’s three million residents lack reliable power almost five years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September of 2017, killing 3,000 people and razing its aging power grid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent about $5 billion to restore power after the storm destroyed the island’s electrical transmission and distribution networks. But reams of red tape and public- and private-sector foot-dragging have frustrated the longer-term efforts to reconstruct and replace the dated, fossil-fuel-guzzling system with a more resilient and efficient network.

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Though there have been no hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin so far this season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration still anticipates above-normal hurricane activity. Earlier this month, during their mid-season update briefing for the news media, NOAA forecasters noted that historically, 90 percent of tropical cyclones occur between August and October.

With blackouts still common, the prospect of new storms terrifies Puerto Rico’s residents. “Until they rebuild the grid, these blackouts aren’t going to stop,” says Federico de Jesús, a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant and adviser for the advocacy group Power 4 Puerto Rico. “They could get marginally better, but it’s a systemic failure.”

In June, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi estimated that completely rebuilding and fortifying the grid to withstand minor storms and hurricanes as well as earthquakes, which are common in the region, will take about eight years. FEMA, the largest source of funds for the reconstruction, has had the funding for Puerto Rico power authorities to start rebuilding since 2020.

But many of the projects announced by the public utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, and LUMA Energy, the private company that took over the island’s transmission and distribution system in June 2021, only got under way after an April power plant fire caused an island-wide power outage.

After the blaze, Jenniffer González Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting Republican representative in Congress, demanded that the utility company and local government officials pick up the pace, noting that over $11 billion allocated to rebuild the power grid sat unused. Since then, power company officials have announced dozens of transmission, distribution, and substation projects, which are subject to approval by FEMA.

Decades of PREPA underinvestment and mismanagement left the grid, built in the 1960s, in poor shape. The power authority borrowed money to keep electricity costs down and failed to upgrade its old and inefficient infrastructure long before Hurricane Maria, according to Eduardo Bhatia, a former Senate president. “You need[ed] more fuel to generate the same amount of energy,” Bhatia adds. “It was a very fragile system.” Debt-ridden PREPA declared bankruptcy in 2017.

Decades of PREPA underinvestment and mismanagement left the grid, built in the 1960s, in poor shape.

Puerto Rico’s energy mix relies heavily on oil and gas. Today, only 3 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources, and the island aims to get 40 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025 and 100 percent by 2050. (Solar power is booming as a decentralized alternative, but not everyone can afford it.) But the island is still years away from integrating renewable energy into the grid.

Despite the unreliable power, the price of electricity has increased seven consecutive times this year alone. On August 1, prices decreased for the first time since 2021. Residents are frustrated, and some are already blaming LUMA for the outages and rate hikes. Luis Nieves, the 47-year-old former senator, said he hasn’t experienced this many blackouts since he was a kid, adding that he feels his service has gotten worse since LUMA took over. Yet the company’s website reports a 30 percent drop in outages experienced by customers.

“This entity is receiving billions of dollars from the federal government and they’re getting paid by the Puerto Rican taxpayers to do this,” de Jesús, the political consultant, says. “I don’t think the company has demonstrated that service has improved.” LUMA did not respond to a request for comment.

Although the process of rebuilding the grid has only just begun, José Baquero, FEMA’s federal disaster recovery coordinator for Puerto Rico, told the Prospect that the island is “much better prepared for any type of disaster right now than we were the day before Maria.”

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