July | August 2017


 

 

 

 

 

 

Rebuilding Efforts in Puerto Rico Pivot Towards Long-Term Goals

By Leslie Haymon, policy analyst, and Michael Carabello, graduate fellow
While the immediate concern for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricane Maria is to restore key services, many are hoping to see more long-term relief efforts, in what the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, or NHCSL, calls “a New Marshall Plan.” This plan would include a long-term commitment to rebuilding Puerto Rico through the provision of personnel and the extension of low-cost loans. 
Part of the reason Hurricane Maria was so devastating is that much of Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure is old, decaying and mostly reliant on fossil fuels. Before Hurricane Maria made landfall, the power grid was already in a dangerous state of disrepair. Before the storm, the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, already had a substantial backlog of unmet maintenance, was using equipment beyond its useful life and was shorthanded due to the island’s financial struggles.
“Our headquarters and emergency command centers had no reliable communications for several weeks after the storm. ... We employed helicopters, drones and land vehicles where possible to inspect the major transmission lines. Without reliable communications systems, PREPA used shortwave radios and satellite phones to establish limited communications,” said Ricardo Ramos, executive director of PREPA, in his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Puerto Rico’s power grid is also very expensive for its citizens. Because of the high shipping costs and the island’s reliance on fossil fuels, electricity is over 250 percent more expensive in Puerto Rico than the mainland. This greatly affects the cost of doing business in Puerto Rico and has become a focal point for people looking to revitalize the island.
“We cannot talk about long-term economic recovery for Puerto Rico with commercial electricity priced at $0.28 per kilowatt-hour, while in the U.S. mainland it averages $0.11 per kilowatt-hour,” said Kenneth Romero, executive director of NHCSL. “Rebuilding the grid to what existed before is not a path to the future. Investing in a new and 21st Century electric system will ensure economic progress for the next 50 years.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló also recognizes the importance of updating Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure for the future. In his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he addressed the grid’s inefficient design. Most electricity is generated in the southern portion of the island, despite the majority of the population residing in the north. He also discussed establishing microgrids, which would make the island’s power grid more resilient and serviceable. Private companies are also seeing the opportunity for investment in Puerto Rico’s power grid, with Tesla, Vivint Solar and Sunrun installing solar panels across the island.
This need for long-term investment has not gone unnoticed in Congress. Two hearings were held on Nov. 14, which discussed relief efforts and long-term energy infrastructure in Puerto Rico.
The hearings also discussed the governor’s request for $94.4 billion in additional aid funding, which included $31 billion for housing, $17 billion for energy infrastructure and $14 billion for health care. There are two primary focuses of this investment. First, the plan will update the grid to be able to handle the fluctuating nature of renewable power. Second, the plan will establish smaller microgrids across Puerto Rico, which would mean problems on one part of the island would not affect other parts of the island.
While many in Puerto Rico agree with this plan, some are cautious about PREPA’s management of such funds.
“I really support the governor’s idea of how to transform the energy system, but I also support federal oversight of how money is to be allocated, in combination with the role of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission as the leader,” said former Sen. Ramon Luis Nieves, who served as Chair of the Energy Committee in the territorial Senate. Nieves recently appeared before House Subcommittee on Energy to discuss his experience with the island’s energy needs and his perspective on reform and the path forward for PREPA.
He said he believes Congress should specifically outline how this aid funding should be used. Furthermore, he stated that the best option for Congress and Puerto Rico is to have the federal government work side by side with the Puerto Rico Energy Commission on renovating the Puerto Rican power grid. And while the details of the relief plan are still being worked out, momentum appears to be growing to restore and revitalize Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
“It is impossible to describe the fury and violence of the storm to people who did not experience
it, but the aftermath told the devastating story. The storm left no corner of Puerto Rico untouched,” said Roselló in his remarks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
To address the growing catastrophe in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Congress passed a series of bills to provide relief for the victims. Likewise, many states have provided support to Puerto Rico since the storm. According to the National Emergency Management Association, or NEMA, 35 states have provided assistance to Puerto Rico’s recovery through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, with over 4,350 response personnel with expertise including emergency management, law enforcement, public health and medical professionals. EMAC is the nation’s interstate mutual aid agreement that allows states and territorial members to share resources during gubernatorial declared emergencies. NEMA is an affiliate organization of The Council of State Governments.
Despite the various legislative efforts and executive actions aimed at aiding Puerto Rico, the island remains devastated. Two months after the storm hit, half of the island was still without power, 1 in 10 were without water, and 1 in 4 didn’t have cell service, according to status.pr. As a result, many businesses still remain closed and economic activity has struggled to return to the island.
“If you ask somebody from Puerto Rico that has been without electricity now for almost 60 days, the response has been slow, very slow. This now has become the longest blackout in U.S. history, with a prediction that for many residents it will be a few months still before power will be restored,” said NHCSL Director Romero.