Last month the entire island of Puerto Rico experienced a multi-day electrical blackout. Experts say a blackout of this type of magnitude has been brewing for a long time and is the result of an unstable electrical grid and a utility in financial crisis.
A fire at a power plant, which led to multiple generator malfunctions and 15 other fires, instigated the blackout that left 3.5 million residents without power. About two-thirds of the residents had power restored within 2 days, while the rest remained without power for another 1-2 days.
While blackouts are not unusual in Puerto Rico, they aren’t usually this widespread nor do they last several days. The timing of this one came during a hot spell where the temperatures reached upwards of 106 degrees one day. Officials called in the National Guard and declared a state of emergency.
The utility company has had unstable fiscal and management grounding for some time and is struggling to get itself out of $9 billion in debt.
Part of the debt issues can be attributed to a longstanding agreement that Prepa, the local utility, provides free electricity to all 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico, along with a handful of non-profits. This means that localities have no incentive to pursue energy efficient projects. One of the rising cities in Puerto Rico – Aguadilla – is a prime example of this type of development. Aguadilla built a new baseball stadium, a hotel and brought nearly two dozen restaurants online in the last few years – none of which pay electric bills.
While free electricity to government agencies may seem unfathomable to some, this is a longstanding agreement and benefit that is a part of the Puerto Rican establishment. The government itself is also facing major financial challenges and is heavily buried in debt. Undoing this agreement to allow free electricity would place an major burden on the municipalities and in turn, the taxpayers.
Despite the challenges of the current electrical system – in management and physical capacity – there is a strong distaste by local officials for any consideration of wind or solar power. Stakeholders seem too overwhelmed by the massive debt and fragile infrastructure to pursue and invest in alternative energy solutions.
Efforts to turn Puerto Rico’s electrical system around would most likely involve a rebuild from the ground up. Unfortunately, there has been little oversight of this industry for many years. The Puerto Rico Energy Commission was only created in 2014.
The Commission, along with other local officials, need to not only address the debt issues but come up with a long-term strategy and plan to explore wind and solar energy for the island. Puerto Rico might also benefit from a microgrid approach to its electrical system. The blackout the island experienced last month shows just how unreliable the system has gotten.