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Power almost fully restored in Puerto Rico nearly a year after hurricanes

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Power almost fully restored in Puerto Rico nearly a year after hurricanes

Puerto Rico's public electric utility has restored power to almost all of its customers close to a year after Hurricanes Irma and Maria knocked out service to nearly the entire island. But concerns remain over the grid's ability to withstand another major storm.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported Aug. 8 that just 23, or 0.002%, of its customers now are without power. The remaining outages are located in the mountainous Cayey municipality in the interior of Puerto Rico and the Naguabo municipality on the island's east coast.

Service to remaining customers should be restored in the next one and half to two weeks, PREPA press officer José Blanco said.

The hurricanes of September 2017 knocked out power to virtually all of Puerto Rico, largely because of damage to the island's transmission and distribution infrastructure. In the aftermath of the storms, PREPA initially enlisted help from private contractors on grid repairs, including signing a controversial $300 million contract with small private contractor Whitefish Energy Holdings LLC.

The utility later canceled the Whitefish deal and requested help from mainland utilities through an industry-managed mutual assistance program. The mutual assistance crews demobilized from the island in April, said Brian Reil, a spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute, which oversaw the industry response efforts. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help with emergency power repairs in Puerto Rico, a mission the Corps largely wrapped up in mid-May.

Although service is almost fully restored, worries remain that Puerto Rico's grid, which was old and fragile before the storms, will face more problems down the road. In June, Puerto Rico's former power restoration coordinator, Carlos Torres, said the island was unprepared for another big storm. And on Aug. 8, FEMA spokesperson Dasha Castillo said in an interview that Puerto Rico's grid is "still very delicate."

Despite those concerns, the governor's office in Puerto Rico recently directed the Corps to remove three megagenerators that were installed to provide emergency power while PREPA conducted hurricane repairs. FEMA on Aug. 8 confirmed that the megagenerator at PREPA's Yabucoa plant was demobilized July 18 while two still are in place at the Palo Seco plant to provide grid stability and black start capability when needed. But Blanco said both the remaining megagenerators will be sent back soon and PREPA is "readier" now for a big hurricane than it was in 2017.

FEMA and the Corps still are maintaining more than 600 smaller generators throughout the island to provide backup power to critical facilities. Under the Public Assistance Emergency Protective Measures, FEMA has granted $1.19 billion so far to PREPA to rebuild its power grid.

Looking longer term, PREPA has shared its intention to modernize Puerto Rico's grid, including through greater deployment of renewable resources. The utility hopes to accomplish that goal partly by privatizing its generation assets and leasing its transmission and distribution system to private companies. But attracting private investment could be difficult, with PREPA struggling under $9.25 billion in debt and recently undergoing a series of management changes.