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As Puerto Rico's power crisis worsens, lawmakers probing outages seek answers

Officials say the crisis of "the worst performing electricity system in the United States" will be resolved soon, but members of Congress and people on the island remain skeptical.
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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rico residents have experienced widespread blackouts, longer service restoration times, poor customer service and voltage fluctuations that often damage appliances and other home electronics since Luma Energy partly took over the island's electric grid in the summer.

Lawmakers in Congress and in the U.S. territory are now seeking specific answers from Luma Energy, which has a contract to do transmission and distribution for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, that may point to why the power crisis is worsening amid electricity price hikes and unreliable service.

In an interview with NBC News, Luma Energy CEO Wayne Stensby said that "by almost any measure, Puerto Rico has the worst performing electricity system in the United States."

"So, we’re out there every day, we’re making it better step by step," he said. "I think the single biggest challenge is the speed in which we can actually bring real improvements to our customers."

Despite the challenge, Stensby said he's confident that the power supply crisis "will get better month by month and year by year."

But that promise has been put into question after Puerto Rico started experiencing a growing number of rolling blackouts, which worsened between August and September.

'It's getting harder to work'

Puerto Ricans like Brenda Otero, who owns a bakery near San Juan, have seen their electric bills increase nearly 33 percent this year. And just last week, her business lost $1,000 as a result of the constant blackouts and lack of power.

"It’s getting harder to work and to pay off the bills for the store, and we want to continue working," she said.

In a letter sent to Stensby on Friday, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources requested access to key information, including the number of experienced workers Luma Energy employs to fix damaged power lines, as well as compensation packages and titles of employees who earn more than $200,000 a year, among other data.

The committee, which oversees U.S. territorial affairs, said the information will help it have better oversight over Luma Energy’s work since the private company took over the transmission and distribution of electricity in June as part of the power grid's partial privatization.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, a public corporation, continues to be in charge of controlling power generation units.

After Hurricane Maria decimated the island’s antiquated electric grid in 2017 — triggering the world’s second longest blackout — the power authority has struggled to keep the lights up for Puerto Ricans. 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.

Otero said she recalls the constant service interruptions post-Maria, "but we knew it was a hurricane that turned everything off, but now we don’t have any hurricane, and it’s worse now."

The Committee on Natural Resources sent its letter to Stensby two days after he refused or provided incomplete answers to some questions during a congressional oversight hearing hosted by the committee last week.

Some of the financial information being requested by Congress is normally available through Securities and Exchange Commission filings, which are documents public companies are required to periodically file. These documents are not publicly available for Luma Energy.

Luis Raúl Torres Cruz, a member of the island’s House of Representatives who heads the energy commission, sued Luma Energy over the summer in an effort to acquire much of the same information Congress is seeking.

"Luma has refused to provide us any information and instead, they've embarked on an appeals process in court," Torres Cruz told NBC News in Spanish.

As part of the appeals process, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court denied on Tuesday Luma Energy's second petition to not disclose the information requested by Puerto Rican lawmakers.

In a lengthy statement, Luma Energy responded to the decision saying, "no company should be compelled to disclose the identity and salaries of their employees, trade secrets, sensitive operational and infrastructure information, without a demonstrated legislative legitimate purpose; even more, without complying with applicable law and due process," adding it "will have an opportunity to raise its defenses and objections when the case resumes before the Court of First Instance."

On Friday, the power authority declared a state of emergency due to the “critical condition“ of its generating power plants.

William Ríos, an energy generation director at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, said the largest power plant in the San Juan area, known as Palo Seco, has been experiencing shutdowns almost every week for the past few months.

Boiler steam leaks have forced the power authority to shut down the power plant. Every time that happens, the unit is taken out of service for a few days. This issue has happened at least 10 times in recent weeks, he said.

Other issues causing blackouts involved seaweed getting clogged in the water filters for condensers.

"In the past few months, we are having practically weekly shutdowns of the unit but when the unit is stable, we can have the unit in service for months," he added.

Ríos said the blackouts have made it very evident that Puerto Rico's outdated power grid, which was built in the 1960s, is hanging by a thread. In order to modernize the grid and improve power generation, it's imperative to replace certain parts of the damaged boilers in Palo Seco, as well as in power plants across the island.

Stensby agrees.

"It’s going to get better," he said, "but fundamentally, until we make a substantial improvement in the amount and or the quality of the generation, it’s going to be difficult."

Nicole Acevedo reported from New York. Gabe Gutierrez and Olympia Sonnier reported from Puerto Rico.

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