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.

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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.

chart

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.

 

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 

Date

Generation Goal

Actual Generation

Difference

31 October 2017

30%

33%

+3

15 November 2017

50%

29%

-21

1 December 2017

80%

66%

-14

15 December 2017

95%

65%

-30

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.

Data on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Blue Roof Program in Puerto Rico

CNN’s John D. Sutter, alongside Cristian Arroyo and McKenna Ewen, have embarked on a road-trip across Puerto Rico, tracking the path taken by Hurricane Maria over the island. Their road-trip, aptly named #LaRutadeMaria, started four days ago. Their reporting captures the day-to-day struggles so many Puerto Ricans still face to this day. Many of their tweets include photographs of the interviewees’ homes or landscape images of different neighborhoods hard hit by the hurricane. And if there is one common theme among all the images it is that many of the houses they have visited are very badly damaged and most have lost parts of their roofs.

In one of the tweets, Sutter shares a photograph of “workers installing a blue roof.” He notes: “Last I heard less than 30% of applicants had gotten help from @USACEHQ” – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Twitter handle.The USACE’s has been following Sutter’s work, responding directly to some of his tweets. And it seems that at least one person in Comerio has benefited by the coverage.

This is a great opportunity for us to consider the USACE’s work in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Since mid-October the Corps has been actively reporting on its activities in Puerto Rico, posting photos, stories and infographics about their work via their social media accounts.

To date, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded USACE, 27 assignments and a budget of $2.4 billion. Of these 27 assignments the most important are:

  1. The rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s electrical system;
  2. The installment of emergency temporary generators;
  3. The removal of 3.7 million cubic yards of debris in 49 out of the island’s 78 municipalities; and
  4. The installment of temporary emergency roofing (i.e. blue roofs).

The USACE’s “Operation Blue Roof” has been a controversial subject. FEMA had to cancel a contract it had awarded to a Missouri-based company for failing to deliver the tarps on schedule. New contracts have been recently awarded, but it will take time to manufacture, transport and distribute these temporary roof coverings to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Thus, the demand for these temporary roofs have been higher than the supply. How much higher? The following chart uses data from USACE’s “Daily Progress Graphic” to answer this question.

blue_tarps_dec17

As of December 17, 2017 – 88 days after Hurricane Maria made downfall – the USACE has only installed 31% of the requested 72,909 blue tarps. The USACE currently expects to deliver up to 75,000 for these plastic roofs, though the numbers will increase given that the government of Puerto Rico estimates that Hurricane Maria destroyed or seriously damaged more than 472,000 houses.

What should we make of these figures? Regardless of what the Puerto Rican government says, the relief effort is still in the “emergency phase”. Returning the island to a pre-Irma state will take months, if not years. And the longer it takes for Puerto Rico to get back on its feet, the more frustration the island’s residents will feel towards their elected leaders, while encouraging many to question the current state of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations.

This short analysis was prompted by Sutter’s road-trip and his Twitter-based vignettes of Puerto Ricans trying to cope with their current socio-economic challenges. His reporting has given voice to a number of working class Puerto Ricans that have been the most affected by this crisis. It is worth following his Twitter account or searching for the tweets that include the hashtag – #LaRutadeMaria – to gain a more comprehensive account of the island’s humanitarian crisis.

In future posts, I will delve into other aspects of the USACE’s work, while also considering Governor Ricardo Rosselló ‘s reactions to the Republican tax plan, which will hurt the island’s economy.

 

The Risk of Unrealistic Expectations: Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Electrical System and the Rosselló Administration’s Credibility Crisis

The Puerto Rican government currently faces two crises. One caused by Hurricanes Irma’s and Maria’s destruction of the island’s infrastructure. The other is a credibility crisis caused by  the government’s incapacity to address Puerto Rico’s post-Maria challenges and worsened by Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s unrealistic expectations about the recovery efforts.

The efforts to restore electricity to the island’s customers is a good example of these unrealistic expectations. On October 14, 2017, Rosselló promised that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) would reestablish electricity to 95% of customers before December 15.  During the news conference, he also ordered PREPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to meet a set of short-term goals, captured in the table below.

Date Electricity Generation Goal
Difference Between Actual Generation & Stated Goal 
October 31 30% +3%
November 15 50% -21%
December 1 80% -14%
December 15 95%   ?

The following graph help us see the pace of power restoration. The horizontal colored lines each represent one of the goals listed in the above table, while the blue trend line represents the percentage of electricity generated from September 21 to December 1, 2017.

chart (62)

The graph also illustrates some of the challenges the electrical system has faced in this time period. For example on November 15, PREPA met the goal of 50% electricity generation, but a problem with one of the high voltage transmission lines reduced the figure to 29%.

Why did Rosselló set in place these ambitious goals? After all, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), as I noted in a previous post, explained that these goals were unrealistic from the get go. One explanation is that Rosselló may have set these goals to encourage PREPA, private contractors and the USACE  to work harder and faster. Another more cynical explanation is that “groupthink” has affected the governor’s decision-making process,  forcing his advisors to conform with Rosselló’s understanding of the crisis and suppressing any form of dissension amongst his inner circle.

Regardless of the reasons, Rosselló’s decision to set these unrealistic expectations and PREPA’s and the USACE’s inability to meet these goals are starting to wear on Puerto Ricans’ patience. While we do not have any public opinion data, it seems that anger against Rosselló and his government is growing in the island. In Washington, D.C., more and more lawmakers are raising serious questions about the Puerto Rican government’s capacity to lead the island’s recovery efforts.