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Illustration by Security Management

Power Outages in Puerto Rico Produce Protests

On 15 October, thousands of residents in Puerto Rico protested against widespread blackouts and unreliable electricity, blocking main highway traffic and demanding the ouster of private power company Luma. 

According to the Associated Press, recent power outages throughout the U.S. territory have not only increased in frequency but have also lasted longer. Residents reported that the outages have impacted homes, schools, and businesses—resulting in ruined food, a lack of online classes for students, workplace closures, and damage to expensive appliances and computers.  

The blackouts have also impacted Puerto Ricans’ health. “Many Puerto Ricans are diabetic and need refrigerated insulin to survive,” the New York Times reported. “The coronavirus pandemic has also put some people on respiratory therapies requiring electrical power at home for oxygen machines.” 

Although some outages resulted from older and outdated generation units breaking down, others were intentional, with Luma Energy announcing blackouts that lasted several hours in response to an overdemand.  

Puerto Rico’s power grid was hard hit by Hurricane Maria four years ago and struggled since then

The damage to Puerto Rico’s power grid after 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,” according to “Bringing Back Power to Puerto Rico” in Security Management’s July 2019 issue. The issue was further frustrated by the fact that PREPA was roughly $9 billion in debt before it was hit with the 2017 hurricane season.

In July 2021, Luma was awarded a 15-year power transmission and distribution contract from PREPA, which owns and operates generation units—including the ones that recently broke down thanks to a lack of repair and maintenance.  

Some of the more than 4,000 protesters who were blocking Las Americas Highway on Friday also voiced frustrations against PREPA.  

“Efforts to strengthen the grid have yet to start, with the government announcing on Thursday the first disbursement of federal funds to the Electric Power Authority, with $7.1 million slated for reconstruction work,” the AP reported. The funds are part of $9.5 billion that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has earmarked for rebuilding the island’s grid. 

Federal lawmakers have also taken a recent interest in the blackouts, calling on Luma to provide answers for why electricity in the territory has become increasingly unreliable even though prices are also on the rise. Rolling blackouts notably began to worsen in August and September.  

On 6 October, during a hearing in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Ruth Santiago, an environmental attorney based in Puerto Rico, called the agreement between PREPA and Luma “a long, expensive, and exclusive scheme that creates a private monopoly over energy transmission, distribution,...and all other electric system functions with the exception of operation of the generation plants.”  

Santiago also noted that since Luma began operating the island’s electric system, customers have seen four rate increases already. She also disputed Luma’s claims that the outages were due to a lack of generation from existing power plants.  

Puerto Rico’s local government declared a state of emergency over its power plants being in critical condition on 7 October, with support from PREPA’s governing board.

Luma CEO Wayne Stensby told NBC News that the company continues to improve the system every day. “I think the single biggest challenge is the speed in which we can actually bring real improvements to our customers,” Stensby said. Stensby also testified at the 6 October hearing. 

According to The Hillcommittee members said they wanted documents from Luma with information on Luma’s damage to customers’ property due to voltage fluctuations.