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Repairing Puerto Rico's Power Grid Could Top $5 Billion

Oct 11, 2017
Originally published on October 11, 2017 6:43 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's an update on some key statistics in Puerto Rico. Weeks after a hurricane, the Commonwealth says 63 percent of Puerto Ricans have clean drinking water - meaning, the rest do not. Sixteen percent have electricity. Sixteen percent - meaning, 84 percent do not weeks after the storm; could take six months to rebuild a power grid that was unreliable before the storm.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on a repair that could exceed $5 billion.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Maria wiped out as much as 85 percent of the island's transmission system. That's a lot of poles to put back up. Some say even six months is a generous estimate for full restoration. Carlos Diaz is getting ready for when the repair trucks roll into his town of Arecibo on the island's west side. He's on his neighbor's rooftop stripping cables.

CARLOS DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I've got two all ready to connect here when they do come," he says.

From the looks of his street, he's got a long wait. A giant metal power pole in front of his neighbor Sandra Rios Caban's house is on its side, teetering into the street in a tangled mess of cables, wires and palm fronds.

SANDRA RIOS CABAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Rios says, the last time the pole went down about, a year ago, the whole block went without power for three to four months.

Lengthy service interruptions and the second-highest rates in the U.S. after Hawaii were long the norm for Puerto Rico's energy users even before Maria did major damage to the island's grid. The power authority here is bankrupt and $9 billion in debt. Unable to pay upfront for equipment and manpower, the company's cash crisis exacerbated its slow response after the storm. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has since stepped in to make the repairs. Colonel James DeLapp says everything from manpower to equipment has to come in on planes and ships.

JAMES DELAPP: There will be tens of thousands of telephone poles shipped over here as well, as well was wire conductors and many of the other components needed to put the grid back and repair the grid back to pre-storm conditions.

KAHN: But not everyone wants Puerto Rico's power to just go back to its old weak ways. Governor Ricardo Rosello says it has to be better and stronger.

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RICARDO ROSELLO: We cannot rebuild the same old grid again. It is evident that if we rebuild it, it won't be resilient, and we'll have the same limitations in terms of its efficiency.

KAHN: Most of the island's power plants currently run on oil and are located in the less populous south. They held up well; wiped out was the grid's vast network of transmission lines. Rosello says he hopes reconstruction will fund the smarter, greener grid, but some clean energy companies operating on the island that survived the storm currently sit idle, paralyzed until they too can get energy from the power company.

Ruben Rivera of Pattern Energy drives around the company's vast wind farm in Santa Isabel in the south of the island. He says his 44 wind turbines withstood Maria's 180-mile-an-hour winds.

RUBEN RIVERA: You can see we have all turbines, all blades are intact and all the structures, the towers, the base.

KAHN: We stop at one while workmen test the tower's huge anchoring bolts. All checked out. Rivera just needs power from the authorities so he can fire up the turbines and again provide energy to more than 35,000 homes.

RIVERA: We're ready to go.

KAHN: He says every day he calls the company and asks how long it will be. So far, he hasn't gotten an answer.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORO Y MOI'S "DIVINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.