Major Puerto Rico outage comes as post-hurricane clean-up efforts cause tree to fall on power line

Hurricane Maria produced the largest blackout in U.S. history.

Downed power line poles  are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico on October 2, 2017. CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images
Downed power line poles are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico on October 2, 2017. CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images

A major power outage hit Puerto Rico on Thursday, a day after federal officials told lawmakers in Washington that efforts to restore electricity to residents of the island are nearing completion.

The Puerto Rican-owned electric utility said about 870,000 people across the island were without power on Thursday after a tree fell on a major transmission line that provides power to San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital city.

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The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island’s electric utility, said the transmission line was damaged while contractors were clearing vegetation. Power had been restored to about 779,000 customers by Thursday night.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority tweeted an image of a tree that fell across a power line near the southeast mountain town of Cayey, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: PREPA
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority tweeted an image of a tree that fell across a power line near the southeast mountain town of Cayey, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: PREPA

This major outage came nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the island’s electrical grid. Similar blackouts have occurred as crews attempt to restore power to the island.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico the morning of September 20, it knocked the island into a total blackout. Since then, restoring electricity has been slow for the 3.4 million residents of the U.S. territory. Scandal surrounding an energy contract for grid restoration has also hindered efforts to repair the island’s electric grid.

But federal officials said Wednesday at a congressional hearing that the restoration of power is almost complete. In recent months, the Army Corps of Engineers has directed efforts that have restored power to 96 percent of the island’s residents. About 50,000 residents, mostly in rural areas, are still without power.

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As of April 3, all 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico are at least partially energized with electric power, Bruce Walker, assistant secretary of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability at the Department of Energy, said Wednesday in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Nearly 60 investor-owned electric companies and public power utilities have committed personnel, equipment, and materials to the power restoration effort in Puerto Rico. Overall, about 3,000 industry line-workers and support personnel have traveled to the island to work on repairing the electric grid, Carlos Torres, a consultant at the Edison Electric Institute, who is serving as power restoration coordinator in Puerto Rico, said at the hearing.

In his role as power restoration coordinator, Torres serves as a member of the unified command group overseeing recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Other members of the unified command group include officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and PREPA.

Torres said PREPA did not make an official request for mutual assistance until October 31, six weeks after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico. Typically, U.S. electric utilities make requests for assistance from other companies immediately after a storm has caused major outages or damaged infrastructure in their service territories.

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On November 22, more than two months after the storm devastated the island, Torres was appointed by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to serve as the power restoration coordinator to oversee restoration effort.

In the wake of the devastation to the electric grid, Rosselló in January announced his intention to privatize PREPA. The Puerto Rico Electrical System Transformation Act was introduced in the Puerto Rico legislature last month to establish the legal framework for this privatization.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a research and consulting firm, released a report Friday that presented arguments against the privatization of PREPA.

“The Rosselló bill is designed only to effectuate the sale of PREPA’s assets to private third parties, without any clear vision of how this would result in a more sustainable and affordable energy mix, lower debt burden, or reduced political interference in the electric system,” the report concluded.

Meanwhile, the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, estimates Hurricane Maria produced the largest blackout in U.S. history. The firm measures blackouts by number of lost customer-hours. So far, Hurricane Maria has caused 3.4 billion lost customer-hours, making it three times larger than the next-biggest U.S. blackout, Utility Dive reported Thursday.

Worldwide, only two blackouts rival Hurricane Maria and both were in the Philippines. Typhoon Bopha disrupted 3.2 billion customer-hours across the country in 2012. The next year, Typhoon Haiyan disrupted 6.1 billion customer-hours in the Philippines.

Source: Rhodium Group
Source: Rhodium Group

“We’re going to do everything possible to get as close to 100 percent as possible,” said Charles Alexander, director of contingency operations and homeland security for the Army Corps said at Wednesday’s House hearing.

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Crews are conducting work in some of the most rugged, remote, mountainous areas in Puerto Rico, Alexander said. Crews, equipment, and supplies need to be transported to the regions by helicopter.

Crews were reportedly clearing land in Cayey, a town in the island’s southeast, when the tree fell onto a line supplying San Juan and several surrounding communities. The mountainous area was hard-hit by outages caused by Hurricane Maria.