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Puerto Rico declares state of emergency over power grid's ‘critical condition’

“Now we’re in a state of urgent implementation and we must execute," Fernando Gil-Enseñat, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority 's board president, told reporters Friday.
Image: People walk in a street left in darkness by a power outage following a cyber attack cyberattack in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 10, 2021.
People walk in a street left in darkness by a power outage after a cyberattack in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 10. Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images file

Puerto Rico has declared a state of emergency due to the "critical condition" of its generating power plants.

The governing board of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority voted in favor of the declaration on Friday, Fernando Gil-Enseñat, the board's president, told reporters on Friday.

"Based on this result, I can tell you that this procedure has already been approved," Gil-Enseñat said in Spanish. "Now we're in a state of urgent implementation and we must execute. Energy security is important."

The declaration will help speed up "the acquisition of essential goods and services required to fix our generation units," Josué Colón, director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, said in a statement Wednesday evening.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is not the only entity in charge of providing the U.S. territory's power supply. Luma, a private company, has been in charge of the transmission and distribution of electricity on the island since June, while the power authority, a public corporation, continues to be in charge of controlling power generation units.

Since the power grid’s partial privatization, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans on the island have been subjected to constant blackouts. They've also experienced longer service restoration times, poor customer service and voltage fluctuations that often damage appliances and other home electronics.

The situation has alarmed members of Congress who are concerned that Puerto Rico's extreme power supply instability may be the prologue to a complete collapse of the grid in the near future.

On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee hosted a congressional oversight hearing to examine the status of Puerto Rico’s electric network and its partial privatization.

During the hearing, when lawmakers asked if Puerto Rico's power system is nearing a complete collapse, officials in charge of Luma and the power authority answered with caution, describing the system's condition as "critical."

"The system was repaired after the hurricane, but not restored," Colón said about how the power authority has struggled with blackouts since Hurricane Maria decimated the island’s antiquated electric grid in 2017 — triggering the world’s second-longest blackout.

Wayne Stensby, Luma’s chief executive officer, said scheduled power supply interruptions and load-shedding to avoid excessive load on power-generating plants have helped avoid a collapse.

“That’s why it’s so critical that we continue on with repairs on generation and repairs and restoration on transmission,” Stensby said.

More than $11 billion in federal funds have been approved by Congress to upgrade Puerto Rico's power system, but no money has been disbursed yet pending further approval of specific projects that would help accomplish such goal.

The outages have increasingly outraged Puerto Rican residents fed up with their access to expensive and unreliable electricity. Protests have begun to take place on the island since Puerto Ricans saw a fourth increase in their electric bill this year, even though they already pay twice as much as mainland U.S. power customers.

More protests are scheduled for Friday and Oct. 15, when the coalition Todos Somos Pueblo is planning to block Expreso Las Américas, Puerto Rico’s busiest highway.

The congressional oversight hearing also examined the state of Puerto Rico's transition toward renewable energy as required by a local government law stating that the island must get 40 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025 and be fully reliant on renewable energy by 2050.

Less than 3 percent of Puerto Rico's electricity currently comes from renewable energy sources.

Gil-Enseñat said that while they're trying their best to achieve such renewable energy targets, "the grid as it is right now isn't as efficient" because it's "designed to provide energy, not to receive it" — a factor that complicates their ability to integrate renewable energy sources.

Colón added, "Any modernization that can be accomplished to the actual fleet with technology that uses natural gas is going to help the system handle better the introduction of new renewable energy sources."

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