Puerto Rico power grid no match for Fiona; residents unsurprised


By Ivelisse Rivera, Rich McKay and Scott DiSavino

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico/ATLANTA/NEW YORK, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Some 80% of homes and businesses in Puerto Rico still lacked power on Tuesday as rains from Hurricane Fiona receded, with residents complaining that the island's troubled electrical grid is still a mess despite billions of dollars in funding to improve it.

Power provider LUMA Energy said it had restored power to more than 100,000 customers and crews were still working to bring back power for the others. Fiona slammed into the island as a Category 2 storm on Sunday, causing an island-wide outage for Puerto Rico's 1.5 million customers. The company said "full restoration could take several days."

Puerto Rico's grid has long been criticized as unreliable, but residents and consultants have complained that outages have become more frequent since LUMA took over operations last year. The grid is largely owned by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).

After Hurricane Maria slammed the island in 2017, it took PREPA more than 11 months to fully restore power. Five years later, Puerto Rico was still working to rebuild its power system, with roughly $12 billion dedicated in federal funds.

"We had a horrible experience in the aftermath of Maria," said Ramon Luis Nieves, an attorney in San Juan, who was without power in his condo. "They promised it would be better. It hasn't."

In July, protesters marched in San Juan, demanding changes after multiple rate increases and ongoing power outages.

LUMA, a joint venture between units of Canadian energy firm ATCO Ltd ATCx.TO (50%) and U.S. energy contractor Quanta Services Inc PWR.N (50%), took over operations of the island's electrical grid last year.

In testimony dated Sept. 12, LUMA officials told a U.S. House of Representatives panel that in the 15 months since the company took over Puerto Rico's grid, the company has reduced outages for the average customer to 7.6 in a year from 10.6 when PREPA ran the system.

LUMA also said it has restored 43 miles of transmission lines and re-energized five substations that had been out since Hurricane Maria.

“With the change from PREPA to LUMA, the most I have seen is that the frequency of time I am without electricity is greater," said Mario Alegre, a film contractor based in San Juan, who said he was forced to purchase a backup battery to power his computer and other essential work equipment in the case of outages.

Alegre said it was difficult to report outages and receive communication from about service restorations from LUMA.

A study from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that service restoration times and voltage fluctuations increased after privatization largely due to a shortage of experienced workers.

Poweroutages.com, which estimates power outages based on data from utilities, said early Tuesday afternoon that 1.168 million customers were still without service, citing what it said was limited information available from LUMA. Poweroutages.com estimates there are 1.468 million power customers in Puerto Rico.

(Reporting by Ivelisse Rivera in San Juan, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Laila Kearney Editing by David Gaffen, Alexandra Hudson and David Gregorio)

((scott.disavino@thomsonreuters.com; +1 332 219 1922; Reuters Messaging: scott.disavino.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


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