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Puerto Rico is on the brink of a power supply crisis. Protesters demand answers.

“It’s not normal to have blackouts, it’s not normal that our students cannot study properly, it’s not normal to have to live with generators," a community activist said.
Image: Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority
A Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority team works in a remote off-road location to repair a downed power transmission line in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 29, 2017. Ricardo Arguengo / AFP via Getty Images file

Puerto Rico residents will see another increase in their electricity bill, even though they already pay twice as much as mainland U.S. customers for unreliable service.

The increase comes the same week in which hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican power customers were subjected to blackouts several days in a row.

The entities in charge of the island’s power supply, Luma Energy and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, have blamed the outages on their inability to generate enough electricity to meet consumer demand, the electrical grid’s lack of proper maintenance and other unforeseen circumstances, including a “sargassum event“ where seaweed clogged the water filters for condensers.

Against this backdrop, over 30 community groups that are part of the Puerto Rican coalition Todos Somos Pueblo gathered in Old San Juan Friday evening to call attention to the ongoing energy crisis, and urge the government to cancel its contract with Luma, a private company working with the power authority, a public corporation.

“It’s not normal to have blackouts, it’s not normal that our students cannot study properly, it’s not normal to have to live with generators, it’s not normal to have to throw away groceries because the refrigerator can’t work without power," Ricardo Santos, a spokesperson for Todos Somos Pueblo at the protest, told Telemundo Puerto Rico in Spanish. "None of this is normal and it’s not normal that our electric bill goes up all the time. That's why we have to go to the streets."

“Cacerolazo” protests, consisting of the banging of pots and pans, echoed in Calle de la Resistencia (Resistance Street) as hundreds of people chanted "Fuera Luma" (Luma Out).

Luma and the power authority originally requested to charge customers 16 percent more for electricity. They argued the increase was necessary to make up for additional expenses attributed to an increased use of less efficient power plants that operate with fuels that are more expensive.

But the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, an independent government office tasked with regulating both energy entities, only approved a 3 percent increase Thursday night after determining they can't "indiscriminately pass down unwise spending to consumers." The bureau also said the practice has contributed to "an inability to lower rates and improve service quality."

"I think the government felt the indignation of the people and they limited themselves to just a small increase. But we must remain vigilant," Santos said.

People in Puerto Rico will start paying an additional 1 cent per kilowatt of power they use, meaning that a customer who uses about 800 kilowatts will see an increase of roughly $5.60 on the monthly bill.

This increase is preceded by three others so far this year. Between January and September, consumers saw the price of electricity go up by nearly 33 percent.

These increases have greatly contributed to the U.S. territory’s high cost of living.

“The cost of electricity is one of the expenses straining most citizens and small businesses,” José Caraballo-Cueto, an economics expert and an associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s graduate business school in Rio Piedras, previously told NBC News.

In June, Luma took over the transmission and distribution operations of the power authority, which has struggled with blackouts after Hurricane Maria decimated the island's antiquated electric grid in 2017 — triggering the world's second longest blackout. Additionally, corruption and mismanagement within the power authority contributed to the island's decadelong financial crisis by racking up $9 billion in public debt, more than that of any other government agency in Puerto Rico.

Officials hoped Luma would spend billions of dollars in government funds to upgrade the battered electrical grid. But two months into the grid’s partial privatization, Puerto Ricans have experienced longer service restoration times, poor customer service, and voltage fluctuations that often damage appliances and other home electronics, according to an analysis from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit group that conducts research and analyses on financial and economic issues related to energy and the environment.

We’re tired of excuses and technical explanations. The Luma company has to go,” Pedro Ortiz, a Catholic priest who is part of Todos Somos Pueblo, said in Spanish during a press conference Thursday.

The power authority is still in charge of controlling power generation units on the island.

Todos Somos Pueblo is planning a follow-up protest Oct. 15 on Expreso Las Américas, Puerto Rico's busiest highway.

"We need the people of Puerto Rico, who have asked us to be a voice and to organize a greater combative presence, to voice their outrage," Ortiz said. "This campaign to sell our country, to privatize it, it's not going to stop. We, the people of Puerto Rico, are the ones who are going to stop it."

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