Eight months after Hurricane Maria, four main transmission lines of the island's power grid remain unrepaired, and custumers served with this infrastructure were connected to sub-transmission lines.
That situation, which joins the fact that there are still thousands of families without power, makes the power grid extremely vulnerable to any atmospheric event, warned José Sánchez, former Director of Contingency Operations and Homeland Security of the Corps of Engineers.
Sánchez was in charge of the power grid restoring operation between September 29 and January 3.
From Washington D.C., Sánchez follows the recovery works on the power grid. "I did not imagine that those main transmission lines were not repaired yet," said the engineer.
Immediately, he explained the problem, and compared the power grid to the human body, and the transmission lines to the arteries. "The problem in Puerto Rico is that, right now, there are some main arteries -if you compare it to a person's body-, that are still under repair. Those transmission lines -not repaired yet- are causing the problem that you have right now: instability," he explained.
He specified that the 36,300 transmission line -from Jobos to Maunabo- is repaired by 35 percent while the 39,000 line -from Barranquitas to Comerío-, by 31 percent. The 51,000 line, which runs from the Aguirre plant to Aguas Buenas, is 61 percent repaired. And the 40,300, which runs between Santa Isabel and the station in Aguirre, has been repaired by 72 percent.
"Those areas (with these transmission lines) are being energized by sub-transmission lines. It is like a bypass. They have been able to bring electricity to these sectors using lower voltage lines that can connect to substations and send electricity to houses," he explained.
"The challenge is that, if the system was already fragile before the hurricane, it is even more fragile in certain areas now. A normal system, which is operating at capacity, where all the systems are connected, would not have that problem. The problem of Puerto Rico is that the system is fragile," he warned, after stating that work on the island has been the most complicated, extensive and expensive one. More than $ 2 billion have already been invested in the repair of the power grid.
Sanchez said that, when beginning to repair the energy system after Hurricane Maria, the idea was to connect the customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and, at the same time, repair the damage in order to put it back to the conditions prior to the cyclone.
However, the devastation of the hurricane, the decrease in PREPA’s employees -because before the hurricane many of them retired or leave the public corporation-, and the fiscal crisis turned into a bomb that blew that idea up. Then, the goal for PREPA and the Corps of Engineers was to work on areas that could result in connecting the largest amount of customers. "That is how works have been scheduled," he said.
The crisis: an aggravating factor
Sánchez did not hesitate to state that, given that the island's fiscal crisis continues and it is not expected to disappear immediately, as long as the hurricane season continues its course, it will affect any atmospheric phenomenon in Puerto Rico. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has already predicted an active hurricane season and that one to four hurricanes could be "major".
"It is true that the main difficulty rests on the island´s fiscal situation because, with a fiscal limitation, I have more employee and less material. That is the serious problem of Puerto Rico. If there is another natural event -it does not have to be like Maria, but similar- there will be destruction, because there is always destruction and there will be destruction of the power grid," he assured.
He added that, although PREPA has now managed to acquire materials, the island is still in the recovery period with the new hurricane season on the horizon.
"However, there is a lack of personnel and funds to buy additional material and bring in additional workers. That is to say, there will be a dependency on the Federal Government again, which is not the most efficient way for restoration. No doubt. Federal aid has been vital for the Government of Puerto Rico, but we must also understand that federal aid is not the most efficient one, there are some bureaucratic elements," said Sanchez.