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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As hurricane season begins, governor praises FEMA grid-rebuild efforts

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi

By The Star Staff

Hurricane season officially started last week, putting the subject of Puerto Rico’s grid reliability back in the headlines.

June 1 also marked the first anniversary of LUMA Energy taking over management of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) transmission and distribution (T&D) system.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia was in Washington, D.C. last week, meeting with Biden administration officials to address some of the island’s pressing infrastructure needs.

He reportedly praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) efforts in rebuilding Puerto Rico’s grid and discussed ways the federal Department of Energy (DOE) could help the island reach its legally mandated target of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Pierluisi said he wanted more DOE technical support to expand Puerto Rico’s renewable sector and to set up microgrids to prevent a systemwide blackout like the one that befell the island in April. The governor also lamented the challenges of complying with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clean air standards when so much of the island currently relies on oil-burning plants.

While he described LUMA Energy’s takeover of PREPA’s T&D system as having growing pains, he also said he wants to see more projects submitted to FEMA and for better communication with an exasperated LUMA clientele after years of reliability issues.

At a news conference to mark the first anniversary of LUMA operations in Puerto Rico, the governor said the public should not expect all the problems in the electrical system to be fixed overnight.

“It’s not like we are going to change all the lines at once, then there would be a blackout throughout Puerto Rico,” the governor said. “Understand that this is a very serious thing. This is not coming here and to make it sound nice to say not to worry, that in two months we are going to change the entire system. If we do that we would be offline for two months. This is going to take years, but it is going to be done consistently.”

“Look at this common front,” he added. “This is serious business. This comes from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and it comes from FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell from the federal government, not to mention the president of the United States himself. There is no tolerance for distractions here. Here we are all working as a team. And they will continue to see, from time to time, updates.”

The governor denied that the process has taken five years since the passage of Hurricane Maria.

“This work did not start five years ago. It’s not fair to assess it that way,” Pierluisi said. “For the first four years, if not to say almost all five, what we had were emergency projects. There were emergency projects that have permanently improved the system. What we are talking about here is rather the redesign of the entire electrical system in Puerto Rico. Redesign and reconstruction.”

In addition to the 15 approved projects, there are 21 that are in process and, the governor said, it is assumed that from now on there will be greater agility in the process of completing the 180 unfinished projects.

At the press conference, LUMA President & CEO Wayne Stensby said “[t]he 3,000 men and women of LUMA are proud to serve the people of Puerto Rico, and of the efforts we have made to fundamentally transform and modernize the energy grid.”

“While the past year has brought many challenges as a result of an energy grid that has suffered years – if not decades – of neglect from the past operator, we are making real and measurable progress,” Stensby said.

In the area of customer service the firm said it has been assisting more than 2,000,000 people after reopening all 25 customer service centers; answered 2,500,000 calls, with an average call wait time of less than one minute; launched the first ever LUMA branded bill, featuring energy saving tips, energy usage charts and information that is clearer and easier for customers to understand; and launched the Mi LUMA app and recorded over 560,000 downloads.

LUMA said it has initiated federally funded projects, initiated the modernization of 300 substations, launched the $1 billion Community Streetlight Initiative in a historic first FEMA approval; and received FEMA funding approval for 10 projects/programs representing $94 million in federal funding.

In terms of system reliability and resiliency, the T&D system operator said there has been a 30% reduction in outages experienced by customers. LUMA added that it has replaced more than 3,000 broken and failing utility poles and cleared 100% of substations of hazardous vegetation.

Meanwhile, LUMA said, it has participated in numerous emergency preparedness tabletop exercises with internal participants and with commonwealth and federal agencies; maintained $130 million in on-hand inventory of T&D material available for daily operations and emergencies; and trained more than 1,000 field workers, from lineworkers to substation technicians, who are available to respond to serious emergencies.

The fragile nature of the energy system LUMA inherited was underscored by a video LUMA released Monday that provides visual examples of the damaged and precarious nature of the T&D system that LUMA inherited a year ago, and which continues to plague the energy system as a whole, the private operator said.

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