The hearing of the Board was held at a time when Governor Ricardo Rosselló has proposed to privatize PREPA assets. (horizontal-x3)
The hearing of the Board was held at a time when Governor Ricardo Rosselló has proposed to privatize PREPA assets. (Edu Bayer / Especial GFR Media)

New York - During the meeting of the Board, several experts agreed that hurricane Maria showed the lack of a clear leadership in the Puerto Rican government to make decisions about its energy system, a problem that is still present in the face of the transformation required by the Electric Power Authority (PREPA) .

Without the mildness that has characterized other officials in her office, Deputy Regional Administrator for the FEMA Region 9 Office - which includes the Pacific territories - Asha Tribble said that, during the emergency, the high level of bureaucracy in PREPA was a major obstacle.

"It does not work ... when you have eight layers to be able to approve something," said Tribble, telling that, in the times of greatest crisis, the bureaucracy added to liquidity problems of the public company, that "could not pay for the materials they ordered."

Early in the process, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggested ideas such as creating a central command for the emergency, with a single coordinator for PREPA, like the position Carlos Torres has now, Tribble told El Nuevo Día after appearing in the meeting of the Board.

"We avoided that they thought we were there to take control ... We would have established a command structure, we tried to suggest that kind of thing, but we support the process that is there," Tribble added.

The hearing of the Board, which controls the financial decisions of the government of Puerto Rico, was held at a time when Governor Ricardo Rosselló has proposed to privatize PREPA assets, including the generation of electricity, and as a preamble to the certification of new fiscal plans of the central government and the public corporation.

It also took place four days after the Board asked Judge Laura Taylor Swain- in charge of the judicial process to restructure the debt- to allow the central government to lend $ 1.3 billion to PREPA to avoid its financial collapse this month.

Most of the 17 experts listed - for several reasons - setbacks the public corporation faces, advocated for a strong and independent regulator of the energy system and stressed the need to obtain financing to modernize PREPA.

There was also consensus on the need for PREPA to change to solar and wind renewable energy technology, establish regional distribution systems and promote micro-grids.

As president of the Board of the Puerto Rico Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy (ICSE), Josen Rossi considered that the problem of many people leading the energy system will be reflected in the transformation plans.

He argued that, the governor, the Governing Board of the public corporation, the Oversight Board and the Energy Commission are now in the development of public policy for PREPA. He might also have mentioned the pressures that come from Congress. "There are too many people. We are scaring consumers and investors," Rossi said.

About Tribble's criticisms, the representative of the government of Puerto Rico in the Board, Christian Sobrino, argued that PREPA established on the way - after the Whitefish scandal - "purchasing controls that answered" precisely to FEMA's demands to ensure that, in the middle of the liquidity crisis, the money was reimbursed. And he recalled that the government of Puerto Rico has denounced the slowness, but regarding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of restoring the power grid.

To the surprise of many, Tribble praised the work of Whitefish Company, which $ 300 million contract was cancelled by Governor Ricardo Rosselló amid the criticism for the high rates charged and the section in which the company sought to avoid audits of the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States.

Like Cobra and the New York energy companies  that did the initial technical evaluations, Whitefish did "a good job," said the FEMA official, but later warned that they have not reimbursed PREPA for that contract.

Meanwhile, the president of the Utier union, Angel Figueroa Jaramillo, warned that "if with bureaucratic processes they sneak bad projects, you can imagine what would happen without bureaucratic processes." The union leader took a turn at the public comment stage after participating in a protest against the privatization of PREPA in front of the Alexander Hamilton building in lower Manhattan where the audience was held.

"While here they are looking to destroy PREPA," the company's workers are in Puerto Rico, reestablishing a service that 30 percent of the population  still lack, said Utier leader.

Nisha Desai, a member of PREPA Governing Board, announced at the hearing that this week they approved to support the government´s public policy of privatization and five basis for the transformation of the company.

Desai - who lives in Houston (Texas) and is an executive of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Alliance (TREIA) - said that along with two other "independent" members of the Governing Board are about to select the next executive director of PREPA. "People follow the leaders," Desai said, indicating that, in order to renew PREPA, they intend to appoint "the first chief executive officer" disconnected from the island's partisan politics.

"Depoliticization has to happen from the bottom up," said Figueroa Jaramillo.

While the audience was being held, La Fortaleza announced that Governor Rosselló had arrived in New York to meet with members of the Oversight Board and their financial advisors about the Fiscal Plan.

While traveling to the Big Apple, Democratic members of Congress Nydia Velázquez (New York), José Serrano (New York) and Raúl Grijalva (Arizona) sent him a letter asking for details of his plan to privatize PREPA.

"We must ensure that it has an open and transparent process that informs the population about the different options available and that provides safeguards for the environment, collective bargaining, pensions, lower rates for public services and investments for a renewable and durable energy system," they demanded Rosselló.

The need to modernize PREPA was a constant topic. "We have old plants with old technology," said José Ramón González, one of the six members of the Board who was at the meeting.

Eduardo Bhatia, spokesman for the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in the Senate and author of the law that created the Energy Commission, compared PREPA generation plants with "the cars in Cuba." Like Rossi and some other speakers, Bhatia defended the Energy Commission.

The president of the Board, José Carrión - greeted by the shouts of the protesters outside the building - asked the representative of the PREPA Governing Board about her position on the debate on the future of the Energy Commission.

Carrión is in favor of an independent energy system regulator, but wanted to know if Desai supported the concept proposed by Rosselló, to integrate the functions of the Energy Commission into an umbrella of regulatory offices. But Desai indicated that she is not well informed on the governor's proposal.

Despite the difficulties that PREPA faces to ask the Wall Street market for a loan - at a reasonable interest rate - to pay for transformation projects, the representative of the AES company, Chris Shelton, said that there are sectors of the industry who may be willing to provide funding sources.

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