Utility associations to help Puerto Rico as Whitefish contract sinks

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Two electric utility associations said they would help Puerto Rico restore electricity as the island's power authority said it was ending its contract with Whitefish Energy.

Edison Electric Institute and American Public Power Association said Tuesday they would step in to the recovery effort in response to a letter from Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

PREPA's $300 million contract with Whitefish had come under criticism from U.S. and local politicians, who said that the company was too small to handle the job and suggested it was hired because of political connections with the Trump administration. Company and administration officials denied those claims.

As of Thursday, six weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the island had restored public electrical service to 37% of its residents. Analysts and officials of the Puerto Rico oversight board have said restoring service as quickly as possible is a key to reviving the island’s economy.

Since Hurricane Irma hit the island in early September, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has been working to restore power service, first with its own workers and later with Whitefish and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The work contracted with outside companies would be paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In response to local and federal politicians’ concerns, the authority gave notice this weekend to Whitefish that it was ending the contract. Whitefish will continue to work on the island for the next several weeks.

“Edison Electric Institute and our member companies welcome today’s request from PREPA, which now allows our industry on the mainland to fully support the critical power restoration efforts underway in Puerto Rico,” said E.E.I. president Tom Kuhn. “We are already working with our member companies to mobilize crews, equipment, and technical experts in response to today’s letter [from PREPA executive director Ricardo Ramos requesting help.]”

Edison Electric Institute represents U.S. investor-owned electric companies.

“Hurricane Maria caused historic damage to Puerto Rico and considerable logistical issues remain,” said American Public Power Association president Sue Kelly. “We know that restoring power to Puerto Rico will be challenging. As the [Ramos] letter outlines, extensive portions of the transmission network in Puerto Rico run through rugged, mountainous terrain with little or no road access. Much of the infrastructure will have to be rebuilt before power can be restored.”

The APPA represents government power utilities.

On Oct. 19 the New York Times reported that PREPA was providing 900 people and Whitefish 300 people to restore service. This compared to the 5,300 people who worked to restore electrical service to coastal Texas in the days after Harvey to an outage about one 10th as large as Puerto Rico’s. Service was restored to nearly everyone within two weeks.

In Florida after Irma 18,000 people worked to restore service, the New York Times reported.

On Oct. 26 the Rhodium Group released report that said Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico’s and the U.S. Virgin Islands’ electrical system had created the biggest outage in U.S. history, as measured by the amount of electricity lost in customer hours.

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