Puerto Rico’s blackout, the largest in American history, explained: More than a million Americans are still without power in part because of the botched hurricane recovery


Alana Rivera, age 10, does her homework on her apartment balcony, lit by a cell phone, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in November 2017.  Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

Some 1.36 million Americans are without power right now, and it isn’t coming back any time soon. This is a national embarrassment.

We’re talking about Puerto Rico, in the throes of the longest and largest blackout in US history following Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds and 36 inches of rainfall that toppled 80 percent of the island’s power lines and flooded its generators last September.

As of February 7, about 30 percent of utility customers couldn’t turn on the lights, refrigerate food, or run water pumps. That translates to 40 percent of the island’s population, because “customer” refers to a power meter, and each meter can represent multiple people living in the same house.

The botched recovery effort that’s dragged on and on is a disaster caused by humans, leading to environmental and health crises. The US Army Corps of Engineers compared the situation to Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 and estimated that Puerto Rico would need 50,000 utility poles and 6,500 miles of cable to restore its power system.

“The lack of power exacerbates everything in the recovery effort,” said Peter Marsters, a research analyst at the Rhodium Group.

Even though power outages are common after large storms, several key factors have made the situation in Puerto Rico uniquely dangerous and deadly. And as the blackout drags on, health and sanitation problems linger, giving residents more reasons to abandon the island.

“The longer a recovery lasts the longer it takes to get to pre-storm levels,” Marsters said.

A blackout is a simple problem in a complicated system

When an electrical circuit is open or broken, the power doesn’t flow, whether that’s a flashlight or a phone.

It’s a simple concept, but when it happens in the electricity grid — what engineers say is the largestmost complex machine ever built — it quickly becomes a byzantine problem.

With thousands of miles of transmission lines, gigawatts of generation, computers that route power, frequency regulators, and transformers that all serve the constantly fluctuating needs of millions of people, lots of things can go wrong. Generators can shut down. Transformers can explode. Power demand and supply can fall out of balance.

By far the most common cause of blackouts is damage to power lines, which are the most vulnerable part of the electrical grid to storms.

“In a disruption like this, it’s transmission and distribution,” Marsters said. “Damage does occur to generation assets, but those are point specific and you can get those back online in a reasonable time.”

A car battery connected to an inverter and a generator provide power for a makeshift street party, on a block without grid electricity, on Christmas Eve on December 24, 2017 in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.  Mario Tama/Getty Images

Debris can fall on the wires, wind can knock down poles, and there’s not much utilities can do to prevent this during a massive storm. Some areas bury electrical infrastructure underground, but it gets expensive over long distances. It costs $174,000 per mile to run transmission lines above ground on average and $1.4 million per mile to bury them, according to a study from the Edison Electric Institute. And buried electrical hardware remains vulnerable to storm surges and flooding.

That’s why most utilities don’t try to make the power system invulnerable but instead focus on getting power back up quickly after a storm. Florida, for example, lined up 20,000 utility workers from across the country well before Hurricane Irma made landfall.

But Puerto Rico’s power grid has been creaking for years. The local government’s crippling debt of more than $73 billion and PREPA’s own obligations of $9 billion made it hard to keep up with critical maintenance like trimming tree branches away from power lines, let alone make upgrades to make the energy network. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has also faced accusations of corruption and nepotism in its management, leading the island’s utility to neglect its responsibilities.

Puerto Ricans are now desperately trying to connect the main power arteries to individual homes, and some have resorted to their own makeshift repairs, mounting their own utility poles and stringing up low-voltage transmission lines.

The local and federal governments botched Puerto Rico’s recovery

José Román, chairman of Puerto Rico Energy Commission, the independent body that regulates Puerto Rico’s energy, said officials should have seen this coming.

He noted that many of the island’s power plants are decrepit, with some more than 40 years old. Almost half of its generators run on imported diesel, making Puerto Rico dependent on fuel shipments. And these power plants are mostly on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, but the main load centers like the capital, San Juan, are in the north. So electricity has to be routed more than 40 miles across the island’s central mountain range, creating a narrow, remote choke point for its energy grid.

As Maria charged in, PREPA decided not to invoke mutual aid agreements with other public utilities the way Florida did for Irma. Instead, Puerto Rico’s government signed agreements with private contractors, with almost half awarded without any bidding.

The $300 million grid repair contract PREPA signed with Whitefish Energy, a tiny company that had only two full-time employees at the time, is a case in point. The company ended up billing the utility above-market rates for expenses, charged nearly double the standard wages for line crews, and used expensive charter flights to bring in supplies.

The contract led to investigations from Congress and the FBI. The head of PREPA, Ricardo Ramos, resigned in the wake of the debacle in November, and the utility is now being privatized.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also suffered its own contractor troubles in the recovery effort, and the agency waffled on whether or not it would withdraw from Puerto Rico at the end of January.

A sub-contractor rebuilds a power line in northeast Puerto Rico  Jeff Miller/Western Area Power/Flickr

Congress appropriated a $4.9 billion recovery loan rather than a grant for Puerto Rico in October, but FEMA and the Treasury Department said in January that the territory may not even get that money because the local government still has cash in its coffers.

FEMA has so far approved more than $509 million in public assistance grants and more than $995 million through its Individuals and Households Program.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced this week that he reached a deal with Congress to get $2 billion to repair the island’s energy infrastructure.

But the White House only gave Puerto Rico a 10-day waiver for the Jones Act, a shipping regulation that requires that only US-built ships transport goods between US ports. This law ends up limiting the number of ships that can transport much-needed grid repair supplies to Puerto Rico and drastically raises their costs.

All these factors add up to an agonizingly slow restoration of power, with some estimates showing that Puerto Rico will not get all of its electricity back until May. While the major transmission corridors are now up, the tedious process of restoring power to remote individual homes will still take more time.

“We’re talking about pretty much the last mile, getting to areas that are not easily accessible,” Román said.

Regulators are now looking for alternatives to the conventional power grid, like microgrids, and are hoping that backing them up with renewable solar and wind power would reduce the bottlenecks in the power system and get the lights back on more quickly after a future disaster.

Román said that more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island since Maria and many will not come back, so the power utility will have fewer customers with which to pay back their investments. Coupled with Puerto Rico’s ongoing financial crisis, that means “difficult decisions” lie ahead in who gets prioritized for power and how much they’ll have to pay for it.

Vox will be tracking the progress of Puerto Rico’s blackout on our social media accounts until power is fully restored. Follow at #PRPowerTracker on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.