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.


Do Puerto Ricans Pay the Highest Electricity Rates in the United States?

Comparatively speaking, do Puerto Rico’s residents pay the highest electricity rates in the United States (U.S.)? The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) collects data on the price of electricity for residential, commercial and industrial customers for all the U.S. states and, since 2014, for Puerto Rico.  The 2016 and 2017 data is preliminary. Thus, for this analysis we will look at 2015 electricity rates for residential customers.

The average price of electricity for residential customers in 2015 was 12.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). The scatterplot below helps us visualize the country’s different rates. Hawaii had the highest prices at 29.3 cents kWh, followed by Alaska and Connecticut.  Puerto Rico, at 20.3 cents per kWh, had the fourth highest price in the nation.

chart (55)

Even though this plot shows that Hawaii had the nation’s highest residential electricity rates in 2015, looking at this rate is not the best approach to see whether Puerto Ricans pay more for electricity than the residents of the other states. For that reason, we should look at how much of the median household’s income is devoted to electricity.

The U.S. Census estimates that the median household income for the U.S. was $56,516. At $40,593, Mississippi’s median household income was the lowest among the country’s 50 states. Maryland has the highest median household income at $75,847, while Puerto Rico’s median household earned around $18,626.

The median U.S. household devotes around 2.5% of its income to pay for electricity. The table below lists the 10 states which devote the least percentage of median household income towards electricity.

States Where the Median Household Devotes the Least Percentage of Income to Electricity (2015)
Utah 1.54%
Colorado 1.57%
Washington 1.64%
District of Columbia 1.73%
Minnesotta 1.75%
California 1.76%
Illinois 1.81%
Wyoming 1.82%
New Jersey 1.83%
Alaska 1.96%

The next table lists the 10 states where residents dedicate the highest percentage of their income to electricity.

States Where the Median Household Devotes the Highest Percentage of Income to Electricity (2015)
Louisiana 3.15%
Arkansas 3.15%
West Virginia 3.19%
Florida 3.21%
Tennessee 3.26%
North Carolina 3.43%
South Carolina 3.66%
Alabama 3.82%
Mississippi 4.06%
Puerto Rico 5.19%

What can we learn from this short analysis?

  • While Hawaii has the country’s highest electricity rates, its median household income is $73,486. Thus, the median Hawaiian household dedicates 3% of its income to pay for electricity.
  • The median Puerto Rican household, in contrast, dedicates more than 5% of its income towards electricity. This is more than double the national average, reminding us that:
    • Puerto Ricans are not only devoting the highest percentage of their income towards their electricity bills.
    • The median Puerto Rican household earns only $18,626, which is $37,890 less than the national average or $21,967 less than Mississippi, the U.S. state with the lowest median household income.

Puerto Rico’s Veteran Population

How many veterans live in Puerto Rico? How does this population compare to the United States’ overall veterans population?

Before I start this analysis, we need to keep in mind Harry Franqui-Rivera’s research on Puerto Rican veterans. His work demonstrates that a great number of island-born Puerto Ricans who enlisted in the military did not settle in Puerto Rico following the end of their military careers. Thus, the numbers of veterans in the island does not equate the number of island-born Puerto Ricans who have served in the U.S. military.

Indeed, Franqui-Rivera’s works shows that Puerto Ricans’ military service has helped many island-born Puerto Ricans resettle in the U.S. mainland. In a recent essay, he explains that the island’s current economic woes have accelerated this process.

In this post, I will be using the U.S. Census’s 2015 American Community Survey for Puerto Rico and the United States to compare both populations. It is worth noting that some of the veterans living in Puerto Rico may not be island-born Puerto Ricans.

According to the 2015 estimates, the United States’ veteran population was 18,830,450 and Puerto Rico’s was 95,342, representing 0.5% of the total. While 8.4% of all veterans were women, in the island the figure is lower by 3.2%.

In line with Franqui-Rivera’s findings, and as illustrated in the graph below, 57% of Puerto Rico’s veterans are 64 years or older.

chart (44)

The fact that many of the island-born veterans reside in the U.S. mainland can be demonstrated by the next graph, which breaks down veterans’ military service by war periods.

chart (42)

Given Puerto Rico’s economic troubles, it is not surprising that the island’s veteran population is on average worse off economically than veterans in the United States. chart (47)

If we look at veterans’ educational attainment, the story is a a bit mixed. More than 40% of Puerto Rico’s veterans did not attend post-secondary education programs. But, on average the number of veterans with a college degree is higher in Puerto Rico than in the United States.

chart (45)

One surprising finding in the 2015 estimates is the number of veterans who have been classified as disabled. The average number of disabled veterans is higher in Puerto Rico than in the total U.S. veteran population.

chart (46) 

What explains this difference? I am not exactly sure and it is an issue that deserves closer attention. However, one plausible explanation is that the Department of Veterans Affairs may be providing many of these disabled veterans some sort of financial compensation which insulates them from the island’s economic troubles.  In this manner, we can hypothesize that most island-born veterans would like to return to Puerto Rico once they end their years of military service, but given the island’s economic troubles they are force to relocate to the U.S. mainland.

Google Trends Data for the US: Which Hurricane Received the Most Attention?

Google Trends Data for the US: Which Hurricane Receive the Most Attention?

The United States, including its territories in the Caribbean, has been affected by three major hurricanes this season. The graph above shows that Google users in the United States paid closer attention to Hurricane Irma than to Hurricanes Harvey or Maria. Data for this graph was collected using Google Trends.

It is not surprising that Hurricane Irma received the most attention. Once the world’s media reported on Barbuda’s and St. Martin’s destruction after Irma’s passing, people in the Caribbean and the U.S. Southeast started to take the hurricane very seriously. Hurricane Irma’s eye wall spared most of Puerto Rico, but Vieques, Culebra and the U.S. Virgin Islands were not as lucky.

Although Hurricane Maria was likely the most destructive of the three storms, Irma affected the most people, followed by Harvey. Given that Google Trends counts the amount of searches Google users make, it seems logical that the hurricane that affects the most people is also the one that receives the most attention.

Could another reason explain the differences between Google users’ interest? What about the U.S. media’s interest? Did media’s coverage of these three hurricane mirror Google searches? We will explore this in another post. What do you think? Feel free to share your views.