Puerto Rico, a territory of the wealthiest nation on the planet, has been struggling with a fragile electric grid for years. Regular blackouts are familiar to many of its residents, and even expected weather forecasts inform them of an incoming hurricane.
Each time a hurricane pummelled through Puerto Rico, it dealt a devasting blow to its already ailing power infrastructure. The island’s power grid struggled to recover after Hurricane Maria hit the island on September 2017. And when Hurricane Fiona made its landfall in September this year, it left many areas in Puerto Rico without electricity and clean drinking water.
The fact that Puerto Rico is a US territory and a “commonwealth” of the wealthiest economy in the world, its lack of infrastructure resilience, and prolonged recovery after disasters are pretty surprising.
ABC reports that some Puerto Ricans are frustrated with the lack of progress in modernizing the island so that they would no longer have to worry about having electricity, running water, safe infrastructure, and more.
Blackouts and lack of running water always affect the most vulnerable first – the sick, elderly, and disabled people, sometimes causing their deaths because they don’t get the necessary care or treatment.
Political activist partly blames Puerto Rico’s infrastructure woes on its status as a US territory. Although Puerto Rico is a territory of the US and Puerto Ricans are US citizens, they have no voting rights in the US elections, nor do they have representation in Congress which deprives them of any leverage. However, the US Congress allowed them to have a local constitution in 1952, which allowed Puerto Ricans to elect a governor.
This arrangement means the United States governs the island and relies on federal dollars to fix and upgrade its infrastructure. As a result, Puerto Ricans have waited for an efficient electric grid and a system that can recover quickly after a disaster. But after Hurricane Maria and Fiona hit, they are still waiting while enduring regular blackouts.
ABC News reports that the public utility in charge of the power grid, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), declared bankruptcy months before Maria hit, citing a $9 billion debt (Zahn, 2022).
Three years after Hurricane Maria, the Trump administration announced federal funding of nearly $9.6 billion to repair the island’s power system. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also contributed additional funds, bringing the total to roughly $12.8 billion. But according to the agency, only a tiny fraction was spent – $1.6 billion in emergency categories and $7.1 million for permanent works or projects that aim to replace or restore a damaged facility for long-term use, which in total only accounts for 0.05% of the overall funds the article says.
According to the article, there are several reasons why only a small portion of the money was used. First, there is a disagreement between FEMA and the Puerto Rico government over the scope of projects and how to use the money. Second, the island struggled to obtain the materials needed to start the project and which caused delays of up to two years. Another reason is that the reimbursement scheme is tied to the funds, where local officials have to put in the money first and then ask for reimbursement later from FEMA. It is challenging for the municipalities because they are broke.
The other reason is that Puerto Rico’s electric grid has been privatized and placed in the management of a Canadian-US partnership, LUNA Energy. The poorly maintained grid proved a daunting task for the energy company. Some experts also believed the company may have underestimated the job and performed “below expectations.” In a press release on 22 September 2022, LUNA responded by saying that they are assessing damages and performing critical repairs to reenergize the grid after the onslaught of Hurricane Fiona.
Corruption in the government
But even before the Maria hit the island, its electric grid shows signs of fragility, says Tom Sanzillo of the think tank, the Institute of Energy and Economics and Financial Analysis.
Talking to ABC News, Cynthia Burgos López, resident and executive director of La Maraña, a group dedicated to rebuilding Puerto Rico, says that Puerto Ricans have yet to see the impacts of federal dollars on the island. López said, “Being a colony from the States, we have a lot of money that’s being sent all the time to Puerto Rico, but we have such a corrupt government that nothing gets to the communities,” recalling the long history of corruption in government and even recent scandals that involved mayors and several government officials.
Some residents believe that the Jones Act that the United States imposed served as a financial barrier to the island. The Act mandates that only ships built in the US should be allowed to carry goods to the island and no one else, which resulted in the high prices of goods – a topic that is still hotly debated.
President Biden, in his visit to Puerto Rico on 3 October 2022, announced a bundle of federal support to the island “to rebuild Puerto Rico in a resilient way” and promised this time that the island would get all the federal dollars so that they could build faster than in the past and better prepared for the future.
Among the financial support that President Biden announced they had included individual assistance for those who needed home repairs or for lost assets like cars or refrigerators, $60 million to help coastal areas, $700 million for infrastructure investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, additional resources from the Department of Energy to modernize the island’s grid and to establish micro-grids. Hence, the residents are not dependent on long-distance connections to the primary grid, creating redundancy when the storm hits. “The goal is lower energy bills and more reliable power for Puerto Rican households,” President Biden says.
Robin Meyers, who writes the newsletter The Weekly Planet for The Atlantic, focusing on climate change and climate policy, says the money on offer for the island is a big commitment for the Biden administration (Valdez & Ebeid, 2022).
Still, the status of Puerto Rico as a territory and not even a state, hence no voting rights, can make fulfilling these promises quite challenging. Meyers also asked whether the funds already committed can still be used or rescinded in case of a new president and discussed the technology and expertise involved in building a resilient electric grid that the Biden administration promised.
Meyers said that with all the national problems and issues piling up on Biden’s desk, it would not be surprising for Puerto Rico’s infrastructure problems to be buried in the priorities pile.
Puerto Ricans have been hoping for a long time for their electric grid to get fixed finally, but for now, they will have to make sure that Federal dollars will go to improve their power infrastructure.
Alfonseca, K. (2022, September 23). After Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Ricans are frustrated with electric grid, infrastructure problems. ABC New. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/US/hurricane-fiona-puerto-ricans-frustrated-electric-grid-infrastructure/story?id=90262537
Zahn, M. (2022, September 23). Puerto Rico’s power grid is struggling 5 years after Hurricane Maria. Here’s why. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/puerto-ricos-power-grid-struggling-years-hurricane-maria/story?id=90151141
Remarks by President Biden on Hurricane Fiona Response and Recovery Efforts. (2022, 3 October). The White House. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/10/03/remarks-by-president-biden-on-hurricane-fiona-response-and-recovery-efforts/
Valdez, A.C. & Ebeid, C. (2022 October 7). What Puerto Rico Needs Most. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/podcasts/archive/2022/10/what-puerto-rico-needs-most/671674/