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DOE pushes to repair Puerto Rico power system

The US Department of Energy said in its latest assessment that 1.57 million electricity customers in Puerto Rico were without power nine days after the unincorporated territory of the US was hit by Hurricane Maria in the early morning hours of September 20.

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The island of approximately 3.4 million people, which is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, saw its 5,840 MW of power generation that is tied together by 2,478 miles of transmission lines first hit by Hurricane Irma on September 6 then again by Maria.

Puerto Rico's system feeds power to approximately 900,000 homes via 31,485 miles of distribution wire. Maria destroyed thousands of homes and left roads and entire towns flooded. It was estimated that 80% of the island's electrical grid was "wiped out."

The DOE, which did not release an event analysis on Friday, said late on Thursday it was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the US Corps of Engineers to begin transporting crews to the island located roughly 1,000 miles from Miami. The effort was stepped up going into the weekend.



However, also on Thursday, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority announced that 5% of its customers had had their power restored.

The DOE acknowledged that PREPA had begun efforts September 25 to bring back online the 400-MW Central San Juan and 602-MW Palo Seco generation units on the country's north coast that would allow PREPA to energize transmission serving portions of the towns of Bayamon and Monacillos.

Much of the urban area of Mayaguez on the west coast was energized by the 80-MW hydro-gas plant that is within the municipality, the DOE's Thursday event report said.

PREPA had also focused restoration efforts on energizing San Juan International Airport and a number of hospitals with diesel fired generators.

Power generating facilities on Puerto Rico


DAMAGED TRANSMISSION IS THE PROBLEM


Going into the weekend, damaged transmission remained the most significant problem.

PREPA has 370 miles of 230- kV line that loops the island and bisects it from north to south in two places. It also has 731 miles of 115-kV line that helps link a total of 344 substations.

On Friday, San Francisco-based Pattern Energy said that preliminary evaluations of its 101-MW Santa Isabel wind facility on the east coast of the island suggested "no material damage" to the facility's 44 Siemens turbines.

However, the island's largest wind farm, which was installed in 2012 and has a 20-year PPA with PREPA, must wait for restoration of the high-voltage grid before resuming production.

The CEO of Houston-based Sunnova, a rooftop solar installation company with roughly 10,000 customers in Puerto Rico, said that while it is unclear the extent of the damage to individual PV systems, with the grid down most of the company's customers are presumed to be without power.

Supplying replacement solar converters and panels is now critical, John Berger, CEO of Sunnova, said. He also said that installing battery systems should now become a high priority.


PREPA HAS $9 BILLION OF DEBT


Government-owned PREPA has for 70 years been the sole supplier of power in Puerto Rico.

It owns a total of 14 generating facilities. In 2016, 47% of its generation was fired by fuel oil, 37% from natural gas, 17% from coal and 2% from renewables.

PREPA buys power from a small handful of foreign-owned generating assets. Virginia-based AES says its 454-MW Guayama coal-fired facility on Puerto Rico's south coast represents approximately 9% of total installed capacity.

For years, much of PREPA's generating capacity used expensive, imported heavy bunker fuel and diesel, which kept electricity rates at or above 20 cents/kWh level.

Nearly all of its natural gas is imported as LNG from Trinidad Tobago and brought in through the Penuelas terminal and regasification facility at Guayanilla Bay on the south coast.

Like the commonwealth itself, PREPA has borrowed heavily over the years but has not invested as heavily in plant maintenance.

Defaulting on $9 billion of debt, PREPA filed for bankruptcy on July 2, 2017.

When utilities in the US reach out to one another after a storm, it is done with "reciprocity payments being made," one industry executive said Friday. "The problem is Puerto Rico is broke."

"Crews from around the country rushed with their equipment to Corpus Christi and Houston to help. Then they rushed to Florida. Now they are worn out."

Furthermore, airlifting trucks, equipment and such things as transmission line on a C-130 transport is expensive. This is why the DOE and FEMA, using funds appropriated by Congress, have taken the lead.

In a widely disseminated statement on Tuesday, the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, or ESCC, said that while Puerto Rican authorities and FEMA were focusing on life safety and search and rescue operations, it was "working across the electric power sector and with federal partners to prepare for what will be a lengthy and complicated damage assessment and power restoration effort."

The ESCC describes itself as the principal liaison between leadership in the federal government and in the electric power sector. Its co-chair is Tom Fanning, president and CEO of Southern Company.

In its statement, the group said it appreciated President Trump authorizing 100% cost sharing by the federal government for 180 days of emergency work to "help begin the process of repairing damaged energy infrastructure in Puerto Rico."

Sue Kelley, president of the American Public Power Association, said in the ESCC statement that APPA "would work with PREPA securing transportation, fuel, housing, food, water and security that will be needed to support restoration crews."

--Jeffrey Ryser, jeffrey.ryser@spglobal.com