The San Juan Daily Star
Remarks about power service restoration lead to significant confusion at press conference
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The Star
During Wednesday’s government press conference on recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia reiterated his assertion that most of the island would have power and water service today, a prognostication that confused reporters.
Abner Gómez, the head of public safety & crisis management at transmission and distribution system operator LUMA Energy, said that 395,206 customers had service after some units were synchronized on Tuesday night. However, when pressed about the governor’s expectations to provide service to most of the island, the LUMA official clarified that “perhaps I wasn’t understood.”
“What I meant was that most areas that weren’t greatly affected by the hurricane could expect to have power progressively,” Gómez said.
That triggered a deluge of questions from reporters, with officials trying to field the questions.
Gómez said “we have had a lot of challenges on the transmission lines; we have four helicopters flying overhead, and there has been damage to some insulators that are not major.”
“Tuesday, a line was able to turn on the Aguirre power plant; this will help us to provide more energy,” he said. “We are focused on transmission; there are important lines that we have identified with EcoEléctrica and Costa Sur.”
When pressed about providing a percentage of how many customers could expect to get their power back given that the situation is growing increasingly desperate, Gómez reiterated that “I want to be responsible; we have to be focused on the fact that we have our people on the street doing repair work all the time.”
“LUMA is working 24 hours a day; we are focused at a general level on transmission because if not, the rest is in vain,” he said. “We have found substations that are underwater, and until that water goes down, we can’t do anything.”
The LUMA official couldn’t provide a number of substations affected or how many people would have power by the day’s end.
When a reporter asked how long it had been since Wayne Stensby, LUMA Energy’s CEO, had power in his building, Gómez answered, visibly bewildered by the question, that “that’s not the matter at hand.”
“We’re at the point of emergency response; those questions are personal, and I have no answer to that,” he said.
LUMA engineer Daniel Hernández was present at the press conference and said that when Hurricane Maria happened in 2017, he was in charge of substations.
“We see the same thing in terms of flooding. Until those waters recede, we can’t energize,” he said. “We have the personnel and equipment, but it’s a waiting game.”
Gómez added that “[w]hat we are going to do is that we have specialized teams to take care of these issues.”
“Right now, if we don’t have transmission working, nothing can be done. … Transmission and distribution go hand in hand,” he said.
Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) Executive Director Josué Colón Ortiz, meanwhile, provided an update on the status of generation units.
“During the night [Tuesday], we had problems with the hydraulic and combustion system at San Juan Unit 9,” he said. “The engineers worked all night, and we could synchronize it in the early morning.”
About other units, Colón Ortiz said, “yesterday, one unit in Cambalache and one in Mayagüez were operating in island mode to energize the Superaqueduct.”
“When we proceeded to join both systems during the night, we were able to complete the mission. When we were in the process of adding more loads, a lightning rod caused an explosion, taking the units out of service. LUMA and PREPA worked continuously to take care of the issue, and we synchronized with Palo Seco and San Juan,” the PREPA chief said. “The system is now united in Mayagüez, Cambalache, San Juan, Palo Seco, and Aguirre. All the Mayagüez units are in service. Now there are 300 more megawatts of generation. We are connecting loads and joining little by little.”
Earlier, Pierluisi insisted that his priorities regarding power restoration efforts had not changed.
“They readjusted expectations,” the governor said. “In many towns on the island, there is significant damage. What I said [Tuesday] and what I reiterate is that a large part of the population throughout the island will have their service by the end of today [Wednesday]. We will continue day by day. I am not satisfied; I want it to continue increasing.”
“They’re being cautious, and with my approval, we do not want to turn on generating units and connect them [prematurely] and then have severe damages,” Pierluisi said, echoing statements from LUMA and PREPA officials. “This is being done in a planned way.”
Lawmaker calls for order allowing generators in apartments
Earlier on Wednesday, Rep. Ángel Matos García, the Popular Democratic Party majority leader in the island House of Representatives, asked the governor to activate an executive order to allow apartment residents to use electricity generators.
The legislator noted that after the passage of Hurricane Maria in 2017, then Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares signed an executive order allowing apartment residents to use electricity generators with the permission of the Environmental Quality Board.
“There are thousands of people who live in condominiums and ‘walk-ups’ who don’t have electricity and don’t have generators in their apartments and as of now don’t know when they will get electricity back,” Matos García said. “Although the personnel of LUMA Energy originally said service would be reestablished within days, yesterday they reversed their calculation. [Therefore], it is important to reactivate this order that permits residents in apartments to use electrical generators.”
The legislator referred to Executive Order 2017-047, which was signed after Hurricane Maria to permit apartment residents to use generators.
“Faced with the failure of LUMA Energy, we have to give tools to the country since there is no certainty when the electricity will return,” he said.