September 19, 2017 / 6:23 PM / in 10 months

Puerto Rico power grid faces generational threat in Hurricane Maria

    By Scott DiSavino
    Sept 19 (Reuters) - Hurricane Maria was on course Tuesday to
slam Puerto Rico with a direct hit that could devastate the
island's underfunded power grid, still recovering from Hurricane
Irma two weeks ago.
    The Category 5 storm, the top end of the five-step
Saffir-Simpson scale, could strain the resources of the island's
power provider, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
The utility filed for bankruptcy in July, after years of
underinvestment that yielded a system it called "degraded and
    Maria is expected to strike the island on Wednesday with
winds of up to 160 miles per hour (257 km per hour), the U.S.
National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.             
    Irma grazed Puerto Rico, knocking out power to more than 1
million of PREPA's 1.5 million customers, according to the U.S.
Energy Department. All but about 60,000 have had power restored,
and the island's power plants were not severely damaged. 
    Maria, however, could be the first major hurricane - defined
as Category 3 or higher - to make landfall since Georges in
1998, said Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist at The Weather
Company, an IBM company. It could be the first Category 5 since
San Felipe II in 1928, which killed more than 300 people on the
    "No generation has seen a hurricane like this since San
Felipe II in 1928. This is an unprecedented atmospheric system,"
said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, in a statement on
    The island could be faced with outages for weeks, straining
the resources of a utility whose power plants have a median age
of 44 years, compared with an industry average of 18 years, and
more frequent power outages. PREPA said in a draft fiscal plan
released in April that "years of underinvestment have led to
severe degradation of infrastructure." 
    "Even if we had an energy system in prime condition, which
we all know we don’t have, it still would be very difficult,"
said Nydia Suarez, who works at CNE Group, a think tank, and
lives on the island. She plans to stay with her son in Guaynabo,
which is farther inland than her home in San Juan.
    The utility had to declare bankruptcy in July due to a $9
billion hole deepened by a lengthy recession on the island,
inconsistent management and ineffective collections. 
    The island's power prices are already higher than any U.S.
state other than Hawaii, according to the U.S. Energy
    "They have been reluctant to raise rates to generate
additional revenues to increase capital expenditures on the
island ... because the population is a bit depressed," said Rick
Donner, vice president and senior credit officer at credit
rating agency Moody's Investors Service in New York.    
    PREPA will use the same plan it used for Irma, Executive
Director Ricardo Ramos said in a news release, by first
energizing hospitals, water plants and some industries. 
    The utility said it has refilled all fuel tanks while
workers collect debris and trim trees damaged by Irma near
transmission lines. 
    The Department of Energy said it was working with the
American Public Power Authority (APPA), PREPA and the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to get mutual aid workers to
Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
    "I was 12 days without electricity after Georges. We think
about that and with a power system that is worse than it was
then – more fragile – we’re expecting more time without power,"
CNE Group's Suarez said.

 (Reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York; Additional reporting
by Dave Gregorio in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
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