Bringing Back Power to Puerto Rico
Print Issue: July 2019
The effects of 2017 Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused the longest blackout in U.S. history, leaving most of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ 106,405 people and all of Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million without power.
In addition to providing traditional support, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) undertook unprecedented roles in helping with grid restoration and disaster recovery. An April 2019 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) outlined the federal support provided by FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
In the Virgin Islands, the two hurricanes damaged more than 90 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority’s aboveground power lines and more than 20 percent of its generation capacity. It took roughly five months for power to be restored to eligible customers in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The scale of the damage to the power grid in Puerto Rico following Irma and Maria was exacerbated by the fact that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was insolvent before the hurricanes and canceled its vegetation management program, which contributed to additional infrastructure destruction during the hurricanes. PREPA is a monopoly supplier of electricity in Puerto Rico, serving approximately 1.5 million customers, and it was approximately $9 billion in debt prior to the 2017 hurricane season.
PREPA’s electric power infrastructure “was known to be in poor condition, largely due to underinvestment and poor maintenance practices,” the GAO report noted. The fact that PREPA’s workers were also victims dealing with the hurricanes’ aftermath hampered the utility company’s ability to restore power.
It took roughly 11 months for power to be restored to all customers with structures deemed safe for power restoration. However, in some instances, electricity service is supported by temporary generators powering microgrids, including for the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.
Power restoration in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands faced several additional logistical challenges, including transporting personnel, equipment, and materials to the islands when neither ports nor airports had power.
Furthermore, the sequence of three hurricanes making landfall in the U.S. mainland in 2017 led to shortages of materials. In some cases, materials were available only as they were manufactured. In addition, neither FEMA nor the USACE anticipated the extensive role they would play in grid restoration—leaving the agencies unprepared and without contracts in place.
As a result, FEMA’s after-action report outlines its plans to establish a standing interagency Power Task Force to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Energy, USACE, and state and local governments. The initiative will also provide crisis planning for the energy sector emergency support function to aid power restoration during future national response efforts.