February 1, 2018 / 11:18 PM / a year ago

Struggling Puerto Rico utility close to finding new chief

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility, PREPA, is close to replacing former Executive Director Ricardo Ramos, a member of the utility’s board said on Thursday during a panel discussion on the U.S. territory’s storm-ravaged energy sector.

The Central Palo Seco power station of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is seen in San Juan, Puerto Rico January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

PREPA’s governing board is vetting several potential hires referred by a consultant tapped to help the utility find its new leader, board member Nisha Desai said, calling the decision critical to PREPA’s recovery from September’s Hurricane Maria.

“When it comes to transformation, to driving cultural change, people follow people,” Desai said. “They look for inspiration from leaders.”

Ramos resigned as executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority in mid-November amid federal and state investigations into contracts awarded to restore power, after Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s electric grid, cutting power to all 3.4 million U.S. citizens. [nL1N1NN18B]

Nearly 30 percent of customers still lacked power as of Wednesday, more than four months after the storm, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Desai was speaking at a panel held by Puerto Rico’s federally appointed oversight board, which is tasked with managing the island’s troubled finances and helping it regain economic stability.

Puerto Rico had $120 billion in combined bond and pension debt before Maria struck on Sept. 20, and had declared the largest bankruptcy in U.S. government history.

PREPA, too, is in a form of bankruptcy, shouldering some $9 billion in debt. Governor Ricardo Rossello last week announced plans to privatize the agency, selling off generation units over the next 18 months.

PREPA’s new chief will be charged with the shorter-term goals of restoring power, managing the utility’s liquidity crisis and trying to boost outdated infrastructure.

The new chief will also have to tackle a perception of financial inefficiency and bloated administrative costs, which some see as compounding the agency’s struggle to weather Maria.

“In an emergency when you have eight layers of approval to get something done. It’s not working for us,” Ahsha Tribble, an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said at Thursday’s panel. “There were so many people speaking on behalf of PREPA that it was setting us back.”

Reporting by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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