Almost a million customers were left without electricity in Puerto Rico after a fire of unknown origins engulfed a transformer in San Juan on Thursday evening, only days after a private entity assumed operations of the distribution and transmission lines of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
“We continue with our work of restoring the system,” said LUMA Energy CEO Wayne Stensby at a press conference Friday morning.
The widespread blackout plunged much of the San Juan metropolitan area into darkness, along with municipalities across the island. As of 3 p.m. Friday, about 19,000 customers were still without power. LUMA expects to restore electricity to all clients by the evening, over 24 hours after the flames broke out at the Monacillo substation.
The cause of the Thursday fire has not been determined. While some people have speculated that the fire could have been deliberately, authorities continue investigating. Officials have said the substation is heavily monitored.
PREPA faces massive challenges in providing the island stable and safe energy through its outdated and vulnerable energy grid, which was badly weakened by Hurricane Maria. It took months to restore power after the storm, with some places left without electricity for over a year. The company, which has held a monopoly over the island’s energy utility for decades, also declared bankruptcy in 2017.
On June 1, PREPA transferred the operation of its distribution and transmission lines to LUMA Energy, a corporation created through an alliance between North American companies ATCO and Quanta Services. Under the new model, PREPA retains ownership of its assets and responsibility for electricity generation.
LUMA has pledged to reduce blackouts as well as modernize the electric grid without raising rates for customers for the first three years of its 15-year contract. On an island where residents grapple with routine outages, unreliable infrastructure and sky-high electricity bills, the promises are a welcome change for some Puerto Ricans.
But labor unions, politicians, officials, social organizations and environmental and energy experts are apprehensive. Some of them oppose LUMA Energy’s running the distribution and transmission lines altogether. Their criticisms include the conditions surrounding LUMA’s costly contract, fears of privatization of government utilities, and worries over whether the company has enough workers to run the island’s electricity systems. Experts are also skeptical that LUMA will be able to operate without raising rates.
Widespread service interruptions since LUMA’s arrival
The massive outage, which affected the majority of the company’s 1.5 million customers, is only the latest interruption in services since LUMA took over operations on June 1. The company has publicly acknowledged that multiple communities across the island have experienced blackouts, and said it has been working around the clock to solve them.
Many Puerto Ricans have taken to social media to complain of lack of response and support as they experience power interruptions and other problems. Some users have said blackouts have worsened, using the hashtags such as #LumaNuncaLlegó (#LumaNeverArrived) and #FueraLuma (#LumaOut).
Even prior to the Thursday blackout, mayors of some towns raised the alarm as constituents face inconsistent services. The mayor of the eastern town of Humacao sent a private team to fix the electrical lines in an elderly community that had been experiencing problems with their service for weeks, according to local daily El Vocero. The outlet reported that the mayor of Aguada, in western Puerto Rico, had been told help was coming but that there wasn’t enough personnel to handle all reports LUMA was receiving. LUMA issued a statement asking municipal authorities to refrain from trying to fix the grid on their own.
The private operator acknowledged its platforms were overwhelmed in its first week, saying it received about 14,000 emails and helped over 25,000 clients at customer service centers. The utility operator also said it had received about 118,000 calls. On Thursday, shortly before the blackout, the company announced it had been the victim of a cyberattack that aimed to overwhelm its customer portal and mobile application.
LUMA arrives as hurricane season kicks into gear, and Thursday’s blackout worried Puerto Ricans about how prepared the utility’s private operator is to handle storms. The company has previously said it has the staffing and resources to manage up to a Category 2 Hurricane. Many Cat 3 and above hurricanes have previously hit Puerto Rico.
Tomás Torres Placa, the consumer representative at the governing board of PREPA, urged for preparation as the possibility of storms looms over Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
He warned that the company only has about 2,100 of the 4,400 employees it needs— and that only about 800 came from PREPA as of May 28. Experts worry that the low number of former PREPA employees who transitioned into the private operator could mean that LUMA is missing out on critical technical and institutional knowledge, particularly in situations of emergency.
“Without even counting with any storm or hurricane event, thousands of consumers have experienced a lack of service,” he said. “Operating the electrical system without having all the necessary human resources affects the continuity of the service.”
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who inherited the LUMA contract from a previous administration, has embraced the operator’s arrival, asking Puerto Ricans to give LUMA time to adjust. But Torres Placa said the company had a year since the contract was awarded to prepare for the role, and that the transitional process did not justify the problems.
“The scale of problems we are having with LUMA is on a larger scale than the one we had with PREPA,” he said. “This has become a problem on a larger scale. We have to address it.“