Major Puerto Rico power outages highlight age of PREPA infrastructure

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Widespread Puerto Rico power outages this week are highlighting the extended age of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s infrastructure and its impact on the economy.

The outages affected 33% to 37% of the authority’s customers since Monday and will continue to afflict many for a few more days, according to PREPA.

Demand has been outstripping supply and that has forced the authority and LUMA Energy, which now runs the authority’s transmission and distribution grid, to do selective blackouts. There was an earlier wave of outages after LUMA took over the grid in early June.

One of the generating units in this PREPA power plant in Cataño is broken, contributing to the power shortages affecting the island this week.

The primary cause of the outages has been five generating units being down, PREPA said. Three of these units have produced no electricity because of break downs. One of them has been producing at half of normal capacity because of a cooling fan problem. The fifth is down due to planned maintenance.

Due to prolonged unusually high temperatures on the island and the presence of dust from the Sahara Desert, many residents may be remaining home with air conditioners on. This has led to an unusual, prolonged run of high demand for electricity.

The age of PREPA’s generation units may have contributed to the breakdowns. They average about 40 years of age compared to a national average of 18 years, according to an americanbar.org article.

In 2019, PREPA customers experienced an average of 675 minutes of outages, compared to an average of 126 minutes in U.S. power systems, according to PREPA’s May 2021 fiscal plan. That year the PREPA customers had an average of 4.6 outages, compared to an average of 1.12 outages in the U.S.

“Lack of electricity is extremely detrimental to business in Puerto Rico,” said Puerto Rico attorney John Mudd. “Internet is an everyday necessity and we don’t have it without electricity. It is a big problem.”

“Delayed capital projects keep the system vulnerable to disruption and increase rates,” the Puerto Rico Oversight Board’s approved May 2021 PREPA fiscal plan said. “A lack of long-term planning results in PREPA’s system being technologically outdated, operationally inefficient, and heavily reliant on an unreliable, high-cost, highly volatile, and highly polluting oil-fired generation fleet.”

The fiscal plan says that $14 billion has been obligated over the next 10 years for rebuilding and transforming the authority’s generation, transmission, and distribution system. This would be a great advance over what has occurred in recent years. From 2012 to 2017 PREPA spent an average of 2.6% of its assets on capital investments, compared to the 6% average of its peer utilities.

Since December 2019, the process of legally advancing the PREPA Restructuring Support Agreement (the debt restructuring deal), has largely been frozen by various factors. It remains to be seen whether the recent outages affect the deal or when legal proceedings restart on it.

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