“About half of Puerto Rico is without electricity two months after the hurricane,” NPR began their interview with Governor Ricardo Rossello.
The governor says their hope is to get power to everyone by Christmas, but that full restoration of electricity could take much longer.
Who has electricity now?
As of this writing, slightly more than half of Puerto Rico has electricity. Some observers conclude from this that half of the land mass has power, and since most of the population is concentrated in metro areas, they think this means that very few people are without power.
In fact, power is being supplied according to specific priorities. Getting stable electricity to hospitals, for example, is a high priority. Grocery stores are a high priority. So power may be restored to some high-priority locations in a neighborhood, but not to all the homes in that area.
Why is a lack of electricity a problem?
Headlines have focused on medical facilities seeing deaths because they couldn’t power life support machinery in ICUs or dialysis machines. Photos of surgeons operating by flashlight have been posted on social media.Obviously, this is a matter of life or death for many people.
There are more problems with a lack of electricity. People cannot store perishable food safely; since many people have had difficulty getting food in the first place, they may be using spoiled food. Many people in Puerto Rico rely on electricity to cook food. Being unable to cook limits food options severely. Limited access to prepared food and limited financial resources combine to make it hard for families to feed themselves.
Lack of electricity has also slowed the restoration of safe water and sewage facilities. These utilities rely on electricity.
Why is it taking so long to get the lights back on?
Puerto Rico’s electricity system wasn’t in great condition before the hurricanes. PREPA, the utility company that powers most of Puerto Rico, was deeply in debt and having plenty of administrative problems. Electricity was transported unreasonable distances, and maintenance of power lines had fallen behind.
Businesses even in the largest cities relied on back-up generators to keep the lights on consistently.Residences and businesses alike paid extremely high utility bills because of the inefficiency of the system.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria knocked down power lines and destroyed much of the crumbling electric grid.At that point, the federal response was slow and communication on the Island was problematic.
A deal was made with a small Montana power company, one which PREPA’s former director says was one of just two that was able to take care of the immediate needs.
Questions about how the deal was struck and concerns about high costs led to the end of that contract. The company, Whitefish, threatened to leave Puerto Rico in the middle of the work. They received a payment following that threat, and are continuing to work as officials deal with the controversy over their contract. Puerto Rico doesn’t have a replacement for Whitefish.
Decisions must be made.
At the same time, little can be done before decisions about Puerto Rico’s future are made. Will Puerto Rico get essential immediate repairs to the existing electrical power system and continue paying excessive rates for insecure electricity?
Will Puerto Rico move toward renewable energy? Both solar and hydroelectric power are good options for Puerto Rico, and would cost less over the long run than patching up the current system.
Is PREPA still in charge of electricity in Puerto Rico? Are PREPA’s creditors or the PROMESA Fiscal Oversight Board going to have a say in energy decisions, even if the numbers show that a new, modern, renewable energy system is the wisest option?
Will Puerto Rico be built up as the 51st state, or patched up as an essentially powerless territory?
It’s hard for future plans to be made without decisions on these basic questions.