US to modernize, speed up work on Puerto Rico power grid

FILE - Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority workers repair distribution lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in the Cantera community of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Oct. 19, 2017. Three federal agencies on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, have promised to help modernize Puerto Rico’s outage-plagued power grid and speed up efforts to strengthen it more than four years after Hurricane Maria razed it. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Three federal agencies promised Wednesday to help modernize Puerto Rico’s outage-plagued power grid and speed up efforts to strengthen it more than four years after Hurricane Maria razed it.

More than $12 billion in federal recovery funds are available, and a portion of that will help finance dozens of grid modernization projects scheduled to start this year, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which signed the agreement with Puerto Rico’s government along with the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and Energy.

In addition, more than $1.9 billion will be used to improve the island’s power system, including the creation of small and large microgrids with the aim to help lower income households. 

Officials said more than 130 projects soon will be in the bidding phase or under construction, including repairs to substations across Puerto Rico, the replacement of thousands of street lights and the creation of an early warning system for dams.

The announcement comes as Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority struggles to emerge from bankruptcy and restructure some $9 billion in debt as power outages continue to hit the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, with many worried about the state of the grid four months before the Atlantic hurricane season starts.

“It’s very much needed,” said Cathy Kunkel, energy program manager for CAMBIO, a Puerto Rico-based environmental organization. “The electrical system is still very fragile and there are a lot of problems with blackouts.”

The agreement signed with the U.S. territory also aims to lessen Puerto Rico’s dependence on petroleum, with the island’s power company slated to sign contracts for at least 2 gigawatts of renewable energy and 1 gigawatt of energy storage projects. Officials said Puerto Rico is finalizing negotiations on several initial projects, including one that would provide 844 megawatts of renewable energy and 220 megawatts of energy storage.

The deal also marks the launch of a two-year study funded by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency that will include public participation to help determine the best way for Puerto Rico to reach 40% renewable energy by 2025 and 100% renewable energy by 2050, a priority of the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

Kunkel praised those efforts, adding that her organization commissioned a study that found Puerto Rico can realistically reach 75% renewable energy by 2035.

“It’s absolutely feasible,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s a question of politics.”

She noted Puerto Rico’s outdated generation system is 97% based on fossil fuels.

The deal also calls for the U.S. Energy Department and one of its laboratories to develop a tool ahead of the June 1 start of the hurricane season combining models of Puerto Rico’s electric system and hurricane forecasting to help the island prepare for storms and speed up emergency response, officials said.

Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which hit September 2017 as a powerful Category 4 storm that damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and led to the deaths of an estimated 2,975 people. It shredded most of the island’s already rickety and aging power grid, leaving some people without electricity for almost a year.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement that the commitments by the federal agencies and the upcoming study mean “2022 will be a year of action to modernize Puerto Rico’s grid and increase energy resilience.”