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.


Consequences of an Unrealistic Timeline: The Politics of Restoring Electricity to Puerto Rico’s Customers

BACKGROUND NOTE: In a previous post, titled “The Risk of Unrealistic Expectations”, I examine why restoring electricity to the island has been so slow. Since then, I have been researching this issue and it is now part of a wider academic project examining U.S.-Puerto Rico relations after Hurricane Maria. In this post, I focus on Governor Rosselló’s criticisms of the U.S. Army Corps Engineers’ (USACE) strategy and efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers following Hurricane Maria. The next posts look at the USACE’s strategy and examines the data connected to these efforts.

On 27 September 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ordered the U.S. Army Corps of the Engineers (USACE) to work with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to restore the island’s electric system, which was devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

From all the issues Puerto Rico has faced since Hurricane Maria, restoring electricity to the island’s customers has probably received the most media attention. It probably ranks as the most controversial topic of discussion among Puerto Ricans. The USACE’s efforts have not been  free from controversy. The main sticking point has been the timeline to restore electric service.

On 14 October 2017, writing in FEMA’s Blog, Brigadier General Diana Holland, the USACE’s Commander for the South Atlantic division, noted:

We believe that 80% of the system is affected, but that is only an estimate. We know that it took five months to restore the majority of power following Hurricane Georges… and I have been told that the damage this time is more extensive.

On that same day, Ricardo Rosselló, the island’s governor, announced PREPA’s timeline to restore electric service, promising that his administration would reestablish power to 95% of customers by 15 December 2017. Table 1 captures the governor’s timeline.

Table 1. Rosselló’s Timeline for Restoring the Electric System 


Generation Goal

Actual Generation


31 October 2017




15 November 2017




1 December 2017




15 December 2017




A week later Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the Commanding General of the USACE, said that most Puerto Ricans should have power by the end of May 2018. The USACE’s timeline has not really changed since mid-October 2017. USACE officials believe that most customers will have power restored by the end of February 2018 and they hope to complete the entire project by May 2018.

Given the USACE’s views, why did Governor Rosselló announce such an unrealistic timeline? In an interview on 27 December 2017 with Agencia EFE, Rosselló insisted that USACE officials had personally assured him that they could meet his timeline. Of course, it is plausible that the governor was under this impression. But, it is unlikely that USACE agreed to this plan as PREPA’s executive director, Ricardo Ramos, told the press on 27 September 2017 that it would take six months to reestablish power to Puerto Rico’s customers. Moreover, repeated statements from the USACE personnel contradict Rosselló’s opinions on the matter.

In one of her recent columns, Sandra Rodriguez de Cotto argues that Ramos’s remarks did not sit well with the governor’s closest advisors. She also writes that the experience may have affected his connections to Rosselló’s inner circle and that his demeanor and body language had changed after the incident. Was Ramos pressured to conform with the governor’s timeline, even though he believed that it would take longer to reestablish power?

Two days before Rosselló’s announced his timeline, Ramos was asked by a reporter to explain when he thought power would be restore to the island’s customers, he said:

In terms of the power system restoration, for cultural reasons, we’re not saying exactly what the date is, because we will get expectations that will put pressure on the utility and its employees.

David Ferris of E&E News seems to have been surprised by Ramos’s remarks. He noted:

That statement would make the typical utility executive raise his or her eyebrows in disbelief. Confronted with angry customers, the CEOs of mainland U.S. power companies might prefer not to raise expectations about when a blackout will end. Yet they usually give their best guess, knowing that shrugging would only incur the wrath of customers and after them regulators and politicians.

Citing Puerto Rican lawmakers, Ferris concludes that Ramos’s statement is an outgrowth of PREPA’s corporate culture which places little value on transparency or public accountability. While his assessment is correct, his analysis fails to understand that Ramos’s statement was more calculated. Under pressure to conform with Rosselló’s more aggressive timeline, he decided to punt and let others answer the question.

It is this background that may explain why Ramos approved two controversial contracts with Whitefish Energy for $300 million and Cobra Energy for another $200 million. It could also explain why PREPA and the Rosselló administration did not sign mutual assistance agreements with the American Public Power Association (APPA) or other U.S. utilities in the mainland. Once these contracts were signed, PREPA officials believed these companies would help its crews meet the governor’s timeline.

But these decisions proved to be disastrous for the recovery efforts. FEMA and the USACE had not been informed of these two contracts and they did not approve them. Given Whitefish’s lack of experience, exorbitant charges and problems connected to the bidding process, the Rosselló administration was pressured by the U.S. Congress and FEMA to cancel the contract. While Rosselló distanced himself from the Whitefish scandal, emphasizing that he had little say in PREPA’s decisions, this strategy undermined Rosselló’s timeline and tainted his credibility with Puerto Ricans, lawmakers in Washington, and Trump administration officials.

After the cancellation of the Whitefish contract and frustrated by all the criticisms, Rosselló met with Nick Brown and Jessica Resnick-Ault of Reuters and during the interview he lashed out at the USACE blaming the slow progress to a “lack of urgency” among USACE officials. He noted that: “Everything that has been done right now has been done by PREPA or the subcontractors PREPA has had.” In addition, Rosselló told Brown and Resnick-Ault that because of the USACE’s slow efforts, his administration was pushed to sign mutual assistance agreements with utilities in New York and Florida to speed-up the recovery process.

Rosselló’s current views of the USACE’s efforts are still the same, but he has recently argued that the slow pace of the recovery efforts is tied to the island’s territorial status, suggesting the federal government has treated Puerto Rico’s disaster differently than other states’ natural disasters. Are Rosselló’s opinions correct? Has the USACE, when it comes to the the restoration of electric services, dropped the ball or treated Puerto Rico differently from other missions in the U.S. mainland?

I will explore in future posts. But for now, it seems clear that one reason why the restoration of electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers has been so slow can be linked to Rosselló’s decision to unveil an unrealistic timeline that pressured Ramos and his colleagues at PREPA to device an equally unrealistic strategy.

Puerto Rico’s Residential Electricity Rates (2000-2017)

chart (59)

As Puerto Rico’s Autoridad de Energia Electrica (AEE) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowly rebuild the island’s electric grid following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, let’s remember that Puerto Rican residents, especially in the last four years, pay one of the highest rates for electricity in the United States. How high is the price of electricity when compared to the rates paid by Americans in other states? We will explore this question in a few days.

These rates were obtained from the U.S. Energy Information Agency which started to collect information for Puerto Rico in 2014. The other rates were collected by the Puerto Rico Energy Commission.

Puerto Rico’s Pre-Maria Energy Sources

chart (11)

For the last weeks, the U.S. and Puerto Rican media have reported about Tesla’s interest in transforming Puerto Rico’s electrical system, following the passing of Hurricane Maria. Earlier this week, El Hospital del Niño announced that Tesla installed a system of solar panels and batteries which will supply all of the hospital’s electricity needs. While Tesla notes that this is the first of many projects, it will not be easy to move Puerto Rico’s electrical system away from its dependence on fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.

Using 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Energy, the chart notes that only 2% of Puerto Rico’s electricity is generated using renewable sources. Puerto Rico’s dependence on petroleum, natural gas, and coal are not only problematic from an environmental perspective, but reliance on these sources makes electricity more expensive.

To put Puerto Rico’s figures in perspective, let’s look at how Puerto Rico compares to the United States and its Caribbean neighbors.

chart (14)

The story is different in the most populous countries in the Caribbean Basin. The graph below shows that most of these economies are dependent on fossil fuels, especially petroleum-based products. Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are the most diversified in terms of energy sources. But, the graph also shows that Puerto Rico produces the smallest amount of electricity from renewable sources.

chart (13)

Does it make sense to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical system to pre-Maria standards? While Tesla and other companies may want to transform the island’s grid, at this moment the Federal Management Emergency Administration’s (FEMA) and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) goal is to reconstruct the old system.

This is a missed an opportunity and as Ramon Cruz and Judith Enck note in a recent op-ed, Congress could actually intervene, asking FEMA, which is financing the recovery efforts, to order PREPA and the Puerto Rican government to use federal funds to invest in new technologies that can increase the amount of electricity produced by renewable sources of energy. This will not only cut Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels, which have to be shipped to to the island, but it will help the island a more resilient grid that will lower electricity prices for the island’s residents.



25% With Power, 35 Days After Maria


According to the Puerto Rican government’s data, 35 days after Maria, only 25% of the island’s customers have electricity.  Although Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, the government hopes to deliver electricity to 30% of its customers by the end of October. Ultimately, Governor Rossello wants to restore power to 95% of the island’s residents by December 15.

While it seems possible that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) will  meet the short-term goal, El Nuevo Dia – the island’s largest newspaper – recently reported that Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the USACE, thinks that Governor Rossello’s assessment of the situation is overly optimistic. He explained that most of Puerto Rico’s customers will have their power restored in February of next year and he hopes that electricity will be fully restored before May.