Puerto Ricans struggle to grasp economic impact of recurrent power outages

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., is asking the U.S. Department of Energy to help Puerto Rico track the economic losses from the recurrent power outages that have been plaguing the U.S. territory since the beginning of the month, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity as the island grapples with heat warnings.

Small-business owners on the island are concerned about staying open as they incur additional costs to operate generators or repair damaged electronics needed to run their businesses.

In San Juan, the capital, business owners reported being without electricity for nine consecutive days in early June. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans across the island endured prolonged power outages and voltage fluctuations — damaging home appliances and forcing residents to discard spoiled foods and medicines.

The economic losses that business owners and consumers are enduring during these outages have been hard to measure.

In response, Velázquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Friday requesting that Puerto Rico be added to the department’s Interruption Cost Estimate Calculator system.

In the letter, obtained first by NBC News, Velázquez said the move will help Puerto Rican authorities measure the duration and frequency of outages and their economic impact, and help assess issues of compensation for people’s losses.

“There must be increased transparency around the extent of the damage caused by the service interruptions,” Velázquez wrote.

The outages have reignited calls from frustrated Puerto Ricans to oust the American private companies that recently took over power generation and distribution after Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s already fragile and disinvested electrical grid in 2017.

At a news conference Thursday, officials of Luma Energy, the company in charge of Puerto Rico’s power transmission and distribution system, said overgrown vegetation caused failures in two transmission lines on Wednesday night, leaving more than 340,000 customers without electricity.

Luma officials also warned about future power service interruptions for this same reason, citing delays in a federally funded project to clear vegetation around the power lines that was supposed to start at the end of 2023.

At a legislative hearing in 2022 after Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Rican lawmakers identified deficiencies in how Luma Energy keeps power lines cleared of overgrown vegetation and in its ability to restore power lines quickly.

Government officials in Puerto Rico had promised for years that the privatization of the power grid under Luma Energy, and more recently Genera PR, would improve electric services. But with permanent reconstruction of the devastated power grid pending since 2017, outages occur more often and last longer in recent years.

The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, the independent government agency in charge of regulating power utilities, has ordered Luma Energy and Genera PR to create a “priority plan for the stabilization of the electrical grid.” The companies have 20 days to submit a preliminary plan to the bureau, according to the resolution.

The resolution also calls for an investigation into the failure of an energy transformer that left tens of thousands of other Puerto Ricans without power on June 2.

That power outage lasted so long that towns in the central and southern regions of Puerto Rico were forced to activate emergency response teams and request that food be distributed to those in need.

Repairs to the faulty energy transformer could take more than a month, mainly because replacement parts are so heavy they can’t be transported by road, presenting Luma Energy with a logistical challenge as it weighs alternatives such as transporting by sea.

“While the private operators fail to deliver results, the physical, emotional, and economic toll on consumers grows,” Velázquez told NBC News in a statement about the letter. “Immediate compensation for these losses is essential, and private operators must be held accountable for their failures.”

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