Restoring Puerto Rico’s Electric Grid at the Municipal Level: Does the Mayor’s Party Affiliation Matter?

AJ Vicens, a reporter who covers Puerto Rico issues for Mother Jones, noted in a tweet:

Someone I met in San Juan tonight compared electric grid restoration in different parts of town to gerrymandering.

I found this tweet interesting so I replied to Mr. Vicens’s tweet, asking what he thought the person meant by that statement. And he promptly replied:

I think it was implying that power resources are distributed based on political and other factors, not necessarily on need or in an even way.

When I visited the island last week, to visit family and do some research on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) efforts to restore electricity, I also heard similar opinions. In addition, many people talked about countless alleged cases of corruption in PREPA. Some of these were covered by the local press – a subject that will be explored in a future Congressional hearing.

For now, let’s ignore the bribery allegations. I am interested in the following question: has politics played a role in the efforts to restore electricity to the island’s municipalities? In other words, does political party affiliation or political favoritism determined the USACE’s and PREPA’s efforts? And why do Puerto Ricans feel that this is the case?

Before we answer these questions, it is important to first note that Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities, each with an elected mayor and an elected legislative assembly.

In terms of population, the biggest municipality is San Juan with 347,052 people and the smallest is Culebra with 1,818 people. While the pro-statehood, Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) won all the territory-level  institutions (i.e. the governorship, the legislature and the resident commissioner seat) in the 2016 general election, the pro-Commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) won 45 of the municipalities. Over 2 million people live in municipalities controlled by the PPD, while close to 1.4 million live in municipalities controlled by the PNP. 

As of this morning, 179 days since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, 92% of the island’s 1,473,000 electricity customers have power, leaving around 120,000 customers without power. As the graph below shows, since 2 January 2018, around 545,000 customers have been reconnected to the electric grid.

chart (5)

Unfortunately, we don’t have these customer level data for the last months of 2017 as PREPA’s computer systems could not calculate how many meters were connected to the grid. But the graph shows that the process to repair the electric system has been very slow and has frustrated many Puerto Ricans.

Another problem with this graph is that it does not actually tell us how many people have electricity at the municipal level. Since mid-January 2018, the USACE has been sharing the number of connected meters by regions. The regions corresponds to PREPA’s division of the islands into the following clusters: Arecibo, Bayamon, Caguas, Carolina, Ponce, Mayaguez and San Juan.

Since mid November 2017, some PPD mayors have questioned whether PREPA and the USACE have spent more time and resources addressing the electricity needs of municipalities controlled by the PNP. While PREPA officials have denied these claims, in mid January 2018, more PPD mayors, frustrated by the slow pace of the recovery, raised the same concerns. While Governor Ricardo Rosselló asked the mayors not to politicize the recovery efforts, his chief of staff, William Villafañe, admitted that the mayors needed access to more information on PREPA’s efforts. Villafañe’s efforts however have not addressed these mayors’ concerns, as many of them noted in a meeting hosted by the governor on 28 February 2018.

Given the island’s politics and Puerto Ricans’ frustrations with the slow recovery process, it is not surprising that many believe that the efforts to repair the island’s electric grid has been shaped by political connections to La Fortaleza – the governor’s residence. But, is this the case?

On 19 January 2018, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día, as a reaction to PPD mayors’ growing criticisms, published the percentage of meters connected to the electric grid in each municipality. As noted in the table below, 60% of the island’s electric customers had power. The average of customers with electricity in municipalities controlled by either political party was the same.

I recently received a copy of a map prepared by the USACE and PREPA for the 28 February meeting mentioned above. At the time, 80.5% of the island’s electric customers had power. The figures suggest that the average number of customers with electricity in municipalities administered by mayors of the PPD and PNP is roughly the same. But given that more Puerto Ricans today reside in PPD-controlled municipalities, the total number of customers connected to the grid is larger in PPD-controlled municipalities than in PNP-controlled ones.

chart (8)

Although I do not have recent figures, these numbers suggest that political favoritism probably did not influence the USACE‘s and PREPA’s efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers. Looking at averages is a tricky undertaking as these numbers can hide important trends. In future posts, I will break these numbers at the regional level. This may provide new ways to look at the data, discover new trends, and reveal insights that may answer these important questions.

While more research is still need, it is also critical to take this opportunity and reflect as to why the mayors and so many Puerto Ricans believe that the USACE and PREPA’s efforts are driven by political favoritism and corruption. Lack of trust in the island’s political parties or political institutions is not a new development. The slow recovery process has only heightened these sentiments and these will further complicate efforts to reform Puerto Rico’s economy and political structures.

Similarly, this lack of trust is also an outcome of a poor public relations strategy on the part of the Puerto Rico’s government. To be fair to the USACE and PREPA, they have used their various social media accounts to inform the world about their efforts. Although their communications do help us understand why it has taken so long to repair the electrical system, they have not addressed Puerto Ricans’ frustrations or anxieties.

Moreover, Puerto Ricans’ negative view of PREPA’s record of poor service has shaken their confidence on the public utility’s capacity to restore power to the island. Similarly, Governor Rosselló’s repeated criticisms of the USACE’s efforts has forced many Puerto Ricans to question its personnel’s commitment and resolve.

It is too late to correct these problems. But lessons need to be learned as Puerto Ricans start to prepare for the 2018 hurricane season.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Installation of Blue Roofs in Post-Maria Puerto Rico: An Update

On a 19 December 2017 post, I presented some data on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Blue Roof program in post-Maria Puerto Rico and some of the challenges FEMA faced trying to procure these blue tarps. At the time, 31% of the requested blue roofs had been installed. As the graph below demonstrates, the current percentage of installed roofs stands at 97%.

chart (4)

What is interesting about this graph is not the number of installed tarps but that the number of requested blue roofs has declined from 75,000 to 63,000. What factors explains this decline? One possible answer is that FEMA may have provided some of these families the money to repair their homes, nullifying their request for a temporary roof.

Similarly, some families may have been fed up with the slow installation of these blue tarps and they may have decided to repair their roofs without USACE or FEMA support. As I noted last December, procurement of these blue tarps slowed down the process. In the last weeks, one of the challenges has been connected to the bidding process, where conflicts between the USACE and local contractors did slow down the installation process.

Finally, many Puerto Rican homes are illegal or their owners do not have the requisite paperwork to prove they own the property. Additionally, many more homes in the island were not built according to code. Under these conditions, FEMA and the USACE may have denied these requests.

All in all, the USACE has so far installed more than 59,000 blue roofs. It seems that in the next weeks it will finish the program. And while 59,000 have benefited by this program, there are many unanswered questions about the people who have failed to gain access to the program. I will try to explore these issues in future posts.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Generation of Electricity in Puerto Rico Post-Maria

In the last few posts, I have been looking at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) efforts to restore Puerto Rico’s electric grid after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. As I noted earlier, the USACE is not leading these efforts. It is part of the Power Restoration Task Force to Coordinate the Restoration Efforts, which is headed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Puerto Rico’s government.

The USACE’s efforts have been guided by a four-part strategy, which includes: (1) the installation of emergency power generation; (2) restoring electricity generation to the pre-Maria average of 2500-3000 megawatts (MW); (3) repair of the grid’s transmission system; and (4) the rebuilding of the distribution system.

Since 18 October 2017, the USACE has regularly provided a snapshot of PREPA’s electricity generation capacity. Echoing the Puerto Rican government’s information portal, StatusPR, electricity generation is expressed as a percentage. StatusPR’s measurement is problematic because it does not specify how much electricity the island’s power plants are producing at a given point in time. The USACE’s statistics are more useful as they provide the actual megawatts of electricity being produced on a daily basis. For example, on 16 February 2018, electricity generation stood at 1928 MW, while it was 2008 MW four days later.

The USACE’s numbers show that we can measure power generation via three different mechanisms. First, we can calculate the actual generation of megawatts per day, which the following graph captures.

chart (3)

Because the USACE’s goal is to restore the grid’s generation capacity to between 2500 and 3000 megawatts, we can calculate the daily amount of power generation against these two goals. In the next graph, the blue line represents the actual percentage of generated power reported by the USACE’s infographics and StatusPR. This is the actual number consistently reported by the media in their reporting. Thus, on 20 February 2018 the reported percentage is 85%.

The red line uses 2500 MW as the goal, while the yellow line sets the goal to 3000 MW. In this manner, each line represents the percentage of generated electricity based on these goals. On 20 February total generation equaled 2008 MW. Thus, this represents 80% of the total power the USACE wants to generate in the near future, if we use 2500 MW as the generation goal. Similarly, if we use 3000 MW as the standard, the island’s power plants are generating 67% of the goal.

chart (2)

What role has the USACE played in restoring the grid’s power generation capacities? An assessment conducted by PREPA and the New York  Power Authority found that most of Puerto Rico’s seven power plants experienced some damage because of Hurricane Maria. On 20 October 2017, the USACE’s Commanding General and Chief of Engineers, Lt. General Todd Semonite, explained that while damages to the grid’s transmission and distributions systems were the most challenging aspects of the restoration strategy, there was not “enough capacity in Puerto Rico’s existing power plants to provide electricity to the island.” Thus, one of the USACE’s main objectives was not only to work with PREPA to repair the existing power plants, but to also purchase and install new electricity generators.

On 16 October 2017, the USACE contracted the Pennsylvania-based Weston Solutions to install two 25MW generators in PREPA’s Palo Seco power plant. By the end of October, both plants were generating around 30MW of electricity, helping to “stabilize the power grid in the San Juan area”.  In an effort to provide electricity to manufacturing facilities, hospitals and other critical infrastructure in the southeastern towns of the island, the USACE awarded a contract in early November 2017 to Aptim Federal Services to install a 25MW generator in the Yabucoa power plant. The new generator became operational on 9 December 2017.

The USACE and PREPA, along with their contractors, have increased the grids capacity to generate electricity. While things have improved, it has been a slow process. And given the Stafford Act’s provisions, the most problematic aspect of this strategy is that these restoration efforts are not transforming the island’s electricity system. Hence the post-Maria electricity system will be highly dependent on fossil fuels and it will fail to meet current environmental standards.

The next posts will examine the USACE efforts to restore the electric grid’s transmission and distribution systems.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Emergency Power Installation in Post-Maria Puerto Rico

In my last post, I broke down the U.S. Army Corps’ Engineers’ (USACE) four-part strategy to restore Puerto Rico’s electric system post-Hurricanes Maria and Irma. The first of these parts is the installation of temporary emergency power generation.

On 1 November 2017, the USACE reported that its 249th Engineering Battalion established a record 366 temporary generators, beating the previous record of 310 installations set in 2007. The old record was connected to the USACE’s recovery efforts in Louisiana and neighboring states following Hurricane Katrina.

As of 16 February 2018, the USACE has installed 1,633 temporary generators and 782 are currently in operation. The graph below demonstrates the relationshop between the number of generators requested by FEMA and the Puerto Rican government to power  the island’s critical infrastructure facilities and other buildings providing emergency services and the amount of generators installed. The graph shows that the USACE and its contractors have so far met 95% of all requests.


The USACE has been making these data available via its social media accounts since 18 October 2017, which I have been collecting since late October 2017.

Because most of these generators are not meant to operate for long periods of time, the USACE’s personnel and its contractors have provided countless of hours of maintenance to its generators. The USACE has also fixed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) and Puerto Rican government’s temporary generators.

In an effort to bring electricity to towns devastated by Hurricane Maria, the USACE has recently established several micro-grids throughout the island. So far, the USACE has installed micro-grids in Patillas, Maunabo, Naguabo, Yabucoa, Culebra, Lares, Villalba and Arecibo.

In the next post, I will review the USACE’s work in the second element of its four-part strategy to help the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority restore the island’s electric grid.

Note: Please note that these posts on the USACE’s work in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Maria and Irma are part of a wider academic project. Feel free to contact me if you have any more information.


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Power Restoration Strategy for Puerto Rico Post-Maria

In my previous post, I noted that Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico. His main criticism is that the USACE has not moved quickly enough to repair the island’s electrical system. In this post, I want to discuss the USACE’s role in the restoration efforts and its overall strategy.

The Robert T Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Act’s provisions inform the federal government’s responses to natural disasters. The act gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) the authority to coordinate the federal government’s relief efforts. FEMA relies on the USACE for emergency support for “public works and engineering-related” projects, which include everything from removing debris to the installment of “blue roofs”. FEMA can also provide the USACE long-term assignments in these areas, as it did on 30 September 2017 when FEMA tasked the USACE to assist PREPA’s efforts to rebuild the electric system.

Like FEMA, the USACE’s role in disaster relief is to support the state government’s restoration efforts. Thus, it is wrong to say that the USACE is in control over PREPA’s work. The USACE is part of the Power Restoration Task Force to Coordinate the Restoration Efforts. The following organizational chart, based on a recent PREPA document, captures the USACE’s role in the Task Force.

Organizational_Chart_PowerRest_TaskForce_PR2018 (1)

The USACE’s power restoration strategy can be divided into four elements. First, the USACE has been installing temporary emergency generators throughout the island. These generators, which most have been installed by the USACE’s 249th Engineering Battalion, have powered critical facilities, including hospitals, fire stations, water treatment plants, water pumps, and telecommunication towers and so forth.

The second set of efforts have been linked to the electricity system’s power generation capacities. The USACE’s goal has been to work closely with PREPA and private contractors to increase electricity generation to a level between 2,500 and 3,000 megawatts, which represents the electric system’s average peak load before the hurricanes struck the island.

The third element is the restoration of the electric transmission system. Hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed 680 out of the 800 the transmissions towers that connect the system’s power plants to the distribution system. A recent study explains that only 15% of theses towers were built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. It also noted the storm affected over two-thirds of the system’s 334 transmission and sub-transmission stations, which convert electricity to a lower voltage so it can be distributed to the system’s residential, governmental, commercial and industrial customers.

The fourth element is the rebuilding of the distribution system, which is “made up of roughly 1,200 circuits, with over 30,000 miles of overhead and underground lines.” Because that the system was not built to withstand a Category 4 storm, Hurricanes Irma and Maria knocked down over 50,000 utility poles and damaged close to 75% of the circuits.

This four-part strategy puts in perspective why restoring Puerto Rico’s electric system has been so challenging. And while the organizational chart shows that the USACE is not leading these efforts, for better and worse, it is the most important actor in the Task Force. In the next posts, we will look at the USACE’s work in the four elements of this strategy. This will give us an opportunity to further analyze its commitments to the overall effort.