The resilient power grid that the government promised after Hurricane María hit the island two years ago would be ready in seven years, anticipated José Ortiz, executive director of the Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
Poles in this new grid would resist winds up to 150 miles per hour, substations would not be located in flood-prone areas and critical facilities – such as hospitals - would receive power through underground cables, among other characteristics.
Right now, none of these works have been completed. Construction has not even begun since they are permanent works for which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has not yet approved funding, Ortiz said.
According to the official, building the new grid requires $14 billion. "That is our estimate, but it is not approved. The grid, as we want it for all Puerto Ricans, can take about seven years," he told El Nuevo Día.
PREPA has until October 11 to deliver cost estimates for permanent improvements to FEMA. All agencies, public corporations, and municipalities have to meet the same deadline.
FEMA spokesman in Puerto Rico Juan A. Rosado said that during the post-María recovery phase, the federal agency approved $1.995 million for PREPA. Of that total, it has disbursed $1.406 billion.
"Where we expected to be"
Despite there have been no permanent works, Ortiz said that two years after María, "We are where we expected to be" with the power grid. "I knew there wasn't going to be any additional FEMA funding because October had been pre-established for a complete restoration with resilience process," he said.
He said, like in the last months, that the transmission system is "much stronger" than in September 2017. The system consists of 2,478 miles of 230,000 and 115,000-volt transmission lines and 38,000-volt sub-transmission lines. The transmission system brings energy from thermoelectric plants.
"The transmission's infrastructure is much stronger," he insisted, noting that repairs to this system were made following more solid standards.
On the other hand, he said that the distribution system "is still weak." These lines, which are the lowest voltage lines and bring electricity to homes, total about 31,446 air miles and 1,723 underground miles.
In September of last year, Ortiz said PREPA would redo 20 percent of the repairs in the distribution system because some of the work done immediately after María was "patches."
"And we did it. This year, we spent $225 million on repairs, mainly in the distribution area. The grid is better than last year, but it's still waiting for permanent improvements. In addition to $225 million, we have two private companies working on the vegetation, which was the main problem with the hurricane," he said.
Earlier this year, PREPA hired Perfect Integrated Solution and Master Link Corporation to manage vegetation surrounding the power lines. Each company won a $2 million contract.
Ortiz said that before the end of the year, there will be Request for Proposals to hire four other private companies for vegetation management, including the transmission system. In total, six companies would perform this task. "We are evaluating the proposals right now," he said.
“An enormous setback"
The president of the Irrigation and Electrical Workers Union (UTIER), Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, drew a very different picture to that of Ortiz and said that "we are not even remotely close to where we should be" two years after María.
He demanded the resignation of PREPA executive director, accusing him of failing in his administrative management.
"I had the perception that we had improved something in the transmission area. They worked on what was damaged and, in that sense, that construction was better than before. But we can't guarantee that what María didn´t destroy (in 2017) is now in optimum conditions," Figueroa Jaramillo said.
“There is little or no progress in distribution. We have been repairing the work private companies did not perform properly. There is no defined project for the distribution system," he added.
Although Ortiz and other PREPA executives said - on multiple occasions - that thermoelectric plants (generation fleet) were not affected by the hurricane, Figueroa Jaramillo warned that there has been an "enormous setback" in this area over the last two years.
"María did not affect the plants, but today we have almost 60 percent of the generation fleet out of service. Last Saturday, San Juan Unit 5 broke and will be out of service for seven or eight months. The generation has been largely abandoned," he said.
For the union leader, this alleged abandonment does not respond to lack of maintenance, but the "failure of the administrative policy" of Ortiz.
He also ruled out that this is an action to advance the privatization of generation assets because, as far as he knows, there has not been a request for proposals, nor have unsolicited proposals been received.
By the end of the year
Ortiz indicated that 85 percent of lighting repairs have completed and that the work is concentrated in about twenty municipalities.
"Much of the lighting is not our responsibility, but mayors ask us to help them. Also, it happens that we go to change the street lights and we realize that the pole is damaged. So, what generally takes to hours, ends up taking the whole day. The damage is more important than we originally thought," he said.
PREPA executive director anticipated that repairs to the public lighting will be completed by or before the end of the year.
"There are many simple systems (to repair), but the problem is that they are spread all over the island. Towers and larger systems are much more advanced," he said, denying that there is a shortage of materials to complete the works.
Asked about this issue, the president of the Federation of Mayors, Carlos Molina, said PREPA has helped municipalities "a lot" with the repair of street lights.
"We have seen a lot of progress with the lighting. We have seen PREPA brigades and private companies doing the work and they have less to do," said the mayor of Arecibo.
In that municipality, specifically, Molina estimated that the repair of lights is between 70 percent and 80 percent complete. "We are better in this area than with the repair of highways," said the leader of the PNP mayors.
The president of the Association of Mayors and San Lorenzo mayor, José "Joe" Román, was not available for an interview. The Association brings together PPD mayors.
Meanwhile, Ortiz said that PREPA and FEMA are completing design and construction standards for the island's new power grid, which he described as "resilient."
"They are almost finished. We are making final decisions with FEMA, because on October 11 we have to submit cost estimates with the agreed standards," he said, after recalling that they started working on standards in June 2018.
He also recalled that last May, FEMA approved $111 million to start with the design phase and permits for permanent works in the power grid after Hurricane María. These funds came from FEMA's architecture and engineering division. "With that money, we are working on the design of several priority projects, including underground power lines for critical facilities," he said.
According to Ortiz, they agreed to relocate "four or five" substations that were left underwater after Hurricane MarÍa. After FEMA flood maps were updated, these substations are in risk zones, so relocating them is not optional. Relocation is considered a permanent improvement project, so it would be done "any time" after October 11.
Vieques and Culebra
Ortiz estimated the first post-María permanent improvement project would be in Vieques and Culebra.
The project includes improvements to infrastructure -transmission and distribution- and the creation of a generation microgrid, which would combine fossil fuels with renewable sources.
Louis Berger and Tesla have already been selected for the microgrid, while there will be a RFP for the transmission and distribution project "soon," Ortiz said.
"Everything suggests this will be the first permanent project that FEMA will approve. It is already its system," he said.