Disaster Response

Hundreds more from mainland head to Puerto Rico to help PREPA

Roughly 1,500 more utility workers from the mainland United States – including lineworkers and others from public power utilities and investor-owned utilities – are deploying to Puerto Rico early in the new year and will be in place later this month to help the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, restore electric service.

The public power utilities that are sending help in the latest wave of fresh crews that will arrive in January are the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California (SMUD), Richmond Power and Light in Indiana, Norwich Public Utilities in Connecticut, and the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation of the Northern Mariana Islands.

They will join workers from PREPA itself and utility personnel from the U.S. mainland who are already in Puerto Rico.

The massive mutual aid effort, made possible by a partnership among the three sectors of the U.S. electric utility industry, will reinforce the seven incident management teams, or IMTs, that arrived in early December to help PREPA with the Herculean job of rebuilding its electric system and restoring power to residents of the island after it was hit by two hurricanes – Irma and Maria – over a two-week period last September. Each IMT is made up of seven to ten workers and is working in one of the island’s seven regions.

Hurricane Maria “severely impacted most of our energy infrastructure,” requiring PREPA to restore large parts of its electric system, noted Justo González, the Puerto Rico utility’s interim director, in a Dec. 29 news release from PREPA. This work “includes intensive manual labor to build primary transmission towers and connection wiring, installation of new poles and equipment,” and other tasks, he said.

PREPA said it has made repairs to its fiber optic system that allow the utility to ascertain that approximately 55 percent of the customers in Puerto Rico that are able to receive electric power have now had their power restored, González said. However, hundreds of thousands of people remain in the dark, the utility said in the news release.

PREPA noted that it had received 14,000 utility poles and was due to receive another 7,000 poles “in the coming days.”

“We are collaborating aggressively” with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and others to restore power, González said.

A workforce of thousands

The New York Power Authority has had workers in Puerto Rico since late September, two days after Hurricane Maria struck the island on Sept. 20.

The first wave of workers from across the U.S. that arrived in December to staff the IMTs included personnel from two public power utilities, the Salt River Project in Arizona and Austin Energy in Texas. They were scheduled to work for 30 days. This first wave of reinforcements will be relieved by the second wave of help that is arriving this month.

The personnel from SRP and Austin have been working in the Carolina region of Puerto Rico, near the capital of San Juan.

As of late December, a utility workforce estimated at more than 3,500 was in Puerto Rico. That workforce is expected to grow to more than 5,500 when all of the reinforcements are in place this month. This includes those already working on the island from PREPA’s own crews, a contingent of crews from New York who are working as part of an intergovernmental agreement, and crews mobilized under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracts.

SRP and Austin will continue to staff the Carolina Region Incident Management Team, said Sam Rozenberg, engineering services security manager for the American Public Power Association. He added that the New York Power Authority continues to have engineering staff and transmission line resources working in the San Juan region as part of the New York state contingent, which they organized.

SRP and Austin all are sending in a second wave of personnel for the Carolina IMT early this month, Rozenberg said.

In addition to SMUD sending line resources and support, they have sent a financial specialist to work with power restoration coordinator Carlos Torres and his restoration leadership team.

A long time without power

“We understand how difficult it has been for the people of Puerto Rico who have been without power for so long,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in the Dec. 29 news release.

“We are confident that with the arrival of more workers from the United States utility companies, along with an updated restoration plan, we will see progress in reconnecting the energy service to everyone."

PREPA has 2,400 miles of transmission lines, 30,000 miles of distribution lines, and 342 substations across the island, most of which suffered substantial damage.

A barge contracted by investor-owned Arizona Public Service will transport equipment from SMUD, CUC and Richmond for the trip from Lake Charles, Louisiana to Ponce, Puerto Rico – a voyage expected to take approximately 10 days. The equipment traveling by barge will include 15 pieces of equipment from SMUD. Equipment from Norwich Public Utilities will travel separately on a barge contracted by investor-owned DTE Energy that is departing from Norfolk, Virginia.

Meanwhile, a major winter storm, accompanied by high winds and frigid temperatures, is sweeping along the Eastern Seaboard, a development that could affect the timetable for the equipment crossing the ocean by barge. The barge leaving Norfolk has been delayed at least one day due to closure of the Norfolk port from this storm.

An agreement to help; a resilience that ‘amazes me’

The broad response from utilities on the U.S. mainland was made possible by a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, developed by the American Public Power Association, the Edison Electric Institute and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The MOU allows electric companies on the mainland that are members of APPA, EEI or NRECA to enter into emergency agreements to provide resources and workers to PREPA on a not-for-profit basis.

Torres, a retired engineer from Consolidated Edison who was named by Gov. Rosselló as the chief “point of contact” for all power restoration work in Puerto Rico, said that as progress is made with the evaluation and restoration work on the island, crews are finding unexpected damage in areas affected by the hurricane, including damage to substations and to transmission and distribution facilities.

“The fury of Hurricane Maria, its powerful sustained winds, severe flooding, and tornadoes had a devastating impact on the electric infrastructure of Puerto Rico," said Torres.

The restoration crews, in collaboration with FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, and the electricity industry, “are working aggressively to restore service, especially in the hardest hit areas where we face significant challenges due to the amount of debris and need to reconstruct portions of the electric system,” Torres said.

“That said, the resilience and patience of Puerto Ricans never ceases to amaze me,” he said. “We will not stop working until every person and business has their lights back on.”

In early December, APPA President and CEO Sue Kelly described the power restoration mission as “complex and difficult,” and said the Association will continue to work together with PREPA, the rest of industry, and federal partners to overcome these challenges.

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