The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority board of directors named former Ascendant Group Ltd. CEO Walter Higgins as it’s new executive director.
Higgins replaces interim director Justo González at the helm of PREPA in the midst of a bankruptcy affecting more than $8 billion in bond debt. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has proposed privatizing the authority.
El Nuevo Día web site reported Wednesday that PREPA would pay Higgins $450,000 per year as a base salary, and more if he achieved certain metrics.
Rosselló commented on criticism of the salary by urging the board of directors to explain the contribution that Higgins will make and why the amount is justified.
“In the past we saw how tens of millions were invested in a restructuring officer that did not have positive results,” Rosselló said, referring to former PREPA Chief Restructuring Officer Lisa Donahue and the firm she worked for, AlixPartners. “This, I assure you, will not be the case.”
Higgins has more than 40 years of experience of top management experience in the electrical and natural gas utility industry. From 2012 to 2016 he was chief executive officer of Ascendant, a diversified energy and infrastructure holding company.
He left the company in 2016 with the intention of retiring.
In the Ascendant role Higgins led the subsidiary company BELCO, Bermuda’s sole electric provider and AG Holdings Limited, which operated several infrastructure and renewable/alternative energy companies serving Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
During his work for Ascendant, Bermuda was struck by three major hurricanes.
“What really appealed to us was not only his top-notch resume, but his experience in Bermuda in the island environment and preparing to transition from an oil-based generating system,” said Ernesto Sgroi Hernández, chairman of the PREPA board of directors.
González served as interim executive director starting in November 2017.
Among its many challenges, PREPA is still trying to restore electricity to the island’s residents in the aftermath of September’s Hurricane Maria. As of Monday 93% of customers had service, according to PREPA.
“It is crucial that the board, company leadership and all stakeholders come together to prioritize recovery and transformation efforts,” Higgins said in a PREPA written statement. “We have a real opportunity here, not just to restore power but to eventually deliver lower-cost, reliable power for all the citizens of Puerto Rico. We want to establish a model for customer focus, power generation, grid management, use of micro-grids and renewables, and delivery that sets a global example for cost, resilience, sustainability, and customer engagement and empowerment.”
PREPA announced Higgins’ hiring on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday Rosselló sent out a release whose sole note of welcome for Higgins was, “The process of transforming PREPA into a new system, modern, efficient and focused on a lower cost for the consumer has already begun. We hope that the appointment of the new executive director will be part of that process of change and improvement for the island’s energy system.”
Rosselló noted that for years Puerto Ricans had complained about the politicization that had characterized the selection of the PREPA executive director. He said he had followed his promise to allow an independent and objective selection of the executive director.
While he offered his opinions of the three final candidates, the governor said he let the board choose the executive director.