New Puerto Rico utility head, same old challenges
Send a link to a friend
[November 21, 2017]
By Jessica Resnick-Ault
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New leadership at
Puerto Rico's beleaguered electric utility may not be sufficient to
compensate for missteps following Hurricane Maria that led to delayed
work, recurrent blackouts and more than $500 million in contracts with
untested companies now under federal investigation.
A management shakeup on Friday will not by itself cure the chaotic and
slow power restoration efforts two months after the hurricane struck the
island. So far, authorities say only 54 percent of the power is
Federal and local leaders have struggled to repair the devastation
wrought by the storm, which knocked out power to all 3.4 million
residents and killed dozens of people.
PREPA's chief executive Ricardo Ramos stepped down unexpectedly last
week, days after congressional hearings on the restoration.
New interim head Justo Gonzalez, previously director of generation for
the bankrupt utility, inherits a situation that even before the storm
was far more complicated than that of any U.S. utility. He faces growing
pressure from the U.S. Congress, federal regulators, the board
overseeing Puerto Rico's finances and longtime creditors to whom the
territory owes $72 billion in debt.
"There are still challenges pre-Maria that need to be addressed as well
as challenges right now," said Jose Roman, interim chair of Puerto
Rico's Energy Commission, which regulates PREPA.
On Twitter, Gonzalez said he wants to see a more "modern authority,"
with standards "on a par with equivalent bodies in the U.S. and
worldwide." Gonzalez was not available for additional comment and
PREPA's press office did not respond to questions.
PREPA's goal is to see 95 percent of power restored by mid-December, but
the process was hampered by decisions not to request aid from mainland
utilities for nearly six weeks, and to sign contracts with little-known
companies like Whitefish Energy Holdings without approval from federal
PREPA's Ramos said he went ahead with deals like Whitefish due to
worries about having to foot the bill for aid from other utilities. The
utility did not have contracts on hand for poles, response vehicles and
other supplies it needed after the hurricane.
The $300 million Whitefish deal was canceled on Oct. 30 - and its crews
and subcontractors are now in the process of leaving the island,
introducing another transitional period for those who will take up the
effort to bring back power.
Florida-based utilities including JEA and Kissimmee Utilities Authority
have been on the island for about 40 days, said Kissimmee spokesman
Chris Gent. He said he does not know who will be taking over the
projects Kissimmee was working on, and added that recently crews have
said work was starting to stall because needed materials were not always
[to top of second column]
Ricardo Ramos, executive director of the Electric Power Authority of
Puerto Rico (PREPA), attends a news conference, in San Juan, Puerto
Rico November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo
The restoration of power has remained a slog. Last week, an outage on a major
230,000-volt line west of the capital of San Juan disrupted service in an area
that included the capital and the populous municipalities of Bayamon and
Guaynabo. It was the third outage in the last several weeks affecting the
Meanwhile, the island's oversight board made a move to review most government
contracts. It also announced plans to appoint retired U.S. Air Force Colonel
Noel Zamot - already a member of that board - as an outside manager at PREPA.
The utility fought that decision and won, as the move was blocked in court.
However, it puts additional pressure on Gonzalez to right the island's power
situation without an outside advisor, and could increase the desire for
oversight from the island's energy commission, PREPA's regulator, which was
formed by legislative act in 2014.
Jose Roman, interim chair of Puerto Rico's Energy Commission, said it had taken
a hands-off approach in the early days after the disaster, only later saying it
would get involved in investigating what had happened after controversy
surrounding the contracts popped up.
"It is my sincere desire that PREPA is able to perform to the quality of
standards we expect them to," said Roman. "We have been two months without
power. They need to perform. There is no alternative."
The utility has had a stream of executives appointed by the island's governor,
and the latest, Ramos, lasted only about a year. This frequent changing of the
guard has disrupted PREPA's ability to enact long-term change, according to more
than a dozen interviews conducted by Reuters.
Roman said that the utility's upper management has "no institutional memory" due
to frequent turnover. When asked about new management, he said: "The new CEO has
been working at PREPA. That will not solve all of PREPA's issues.
"We will see as time develops how he performs."
For graphic on power in Puerto Rico, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2z7v7A7
For graphic on power restoration after major U.S. hurricanes, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2xvCFyU
(Reporting By Jessica Resnick-Ault; additional reporting by Scott DiSavino and
Nick Brown; Editing by David Gaffen and David Gregorio)
[© 2017 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2017 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.