Hands Off Puerto Rico’s Effort to Modernize Its Electrical Grid
Three hundred and twenty-eight days after Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico, the government announced it had finally restored power to the last neighborhood that lost electricity after the Category 4 storm. In total, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) reported that 1.5 million customers across the island had lost electricity during Maria, causing the longest blackout in United States history.
The widespread power outages led to a domino effect of troubles for the island and its residents. Without power, access to critical health care treatments, from dialysis machines to emergency services, and even sanitation systems, was near-impossible, leading to widespread illness and fatalities. And for those who could no longer tolerate the living conditions – they fled. In fact, the Center on Puerto Rican studies estimated that from 2017 to 2019, the island will have lost up to 470,335 residents, or 14 percent of the population.
Yet two years after Maria, many of the problems with the electrical grid persist – not because of the hurricane, but because of PREPA’s historic mismanagement and bloated bureaucracy. Look no further than the five different CEOs who have cycled in and out of the entity in a year’s time – giving up or being removed for political purposes – before they even had an opportunity to address the problems. Coupled with the still outstanding debt of $9 billion and the continued failure to collect utility fees, PREPA’s future remains grim.
Fortunately, a path forward for PREPA emerged in May, when a group of existing creditors, invested in a successful future for the island, reached an agreement to restructure PREPA’s billions in debt. The deal clears the way for the modernization of the island’s energy grid and includes investments in green energy and resiliency. Solvency for PREPA will provide a reliable future, and a reliable future will finally reopen Puerto Rico to investment and rebuilding opportunities.
As always, though, a handful of special interests and their willing partners in Congress are trying to thwart this plan, not because it won’t work or help the people of Puerto Rico, but because the deal doesn’t go far enough to make Puerto Rico solely solar or wind powered. There is great concern that this campaign to halt PREPA’s desperately needed transformation is gaining traction – bringing about memories of a formerly negotiated and agreed upon deal, which could have prevented the sustained suffering brought about by Hurricane Maria.
Thankfully, the Financial Oversight and Management Board is supportive of this negotiated deal. And Republican members of Congress are speaking out against the ideologically-driven tampering that could derail the deal and PREPA’s future.
Without a long-term restructuring of PREPA’s debt, Puerto Rico’s economy will continue to struggle in the absence of a reliable power supply. The 10-year PREPA transformation plan is a step in the right direction, representing a long-term investment in the island’s future that will result in cleaner, greener, and more dependable energy transmission to its 3.2 million residents who have spent too long in the dark.
Andrew Vecera is an original author of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) and a former staff director on the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources under Chairman Rob Bishop.