As another wave of blackouts hit Puerto Rico during the week of February 11, the island faced yet another hurdle in a crisis which has extended over five months after Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the territory’s power infrastructure. This particular string of blackouts occurred after an explosion at a power plant. The enormous costs associated with the hurricane have given Puerto Rican labor a near-impossible task of constantly repairing equipment when what it really needs is replacement.
Puerto Rico is now in the midst of the longest blackout in U.S. history. Earlier this month, 40 percent of the island’s population did not have power, and over 1.3 million people could not count on basic necessities like refrigeration, running water, or light. The lack of power has also created logistical issues with hurricane recovery that complicated projects to restore well-being to the island.
While the situation may seem bleak now, progress has been made. The storm initially knocked out 80 percent of the island’s power, a percentage which workers have since cut in half. Overall, however, the effort has been badly botched.
Even before Maria hit the island, Puerto Rico’s grid was decrepit and riddled with weaknesses waiting to be exploited. Almost half of the island’s generators ran on imported diesel, a supply line which quickly failed following the storm.
Puerto Rico also lacks the institutional capability to fix these problems alone. The government is $73 billion in debt. When it came time to restore power, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority tried to sign a series of private contracts for reparation rather than taking the traditional approach of handling it themselves. The most famous and widely criticized of these deals was a contract with Whitefish Energy, a company composed of two workers in Montana with little to no regional experience, which the Puerto Rican government has since cancelled due to issues meeting deadlines.
With domestic solutions yielding unsatisfactory results, the international community could play a key role in the eventual resolution of the electricity crisis. So far, foreign initiatives have dealt more with the human impacts of Hurricane Maria than with the electrical grid. Aid groups have worked to provide food, shelter, and medical services, but without access to power, problems will remain.
Elon Musk and Tesla offered to bring power back to the island on Twitter, but it appears as though negotiations on a brand new grid did not get much further than social media. Tesla and other companies like Duracell and Sonnen have been sending batteries to the island, but without retrofitted infrastructure, the problem is likely to persist. With hurricane season just four months away, the island needs solutions immediately.