by Elizabeth Arnold
Prior to hurricane Maria the island of Vieques, population of roughly 9,000, relied on a 38-kilovolt underwater electrical cable running from the mainland of Puerto Rico to supply power to the small island (isla nena). For a week after hurricane Maria hit, Vieques was without power, communication or transportation on and off the island. (It was about two and a half months after the hurricane before the island had regularly scheduled ferry service to the mainland). Once communication and transportation became possible, The Army Corps of Engineers supplied two 3.3 MW diesel generators to Vieques. FEMA brought additional generators and diesel fuel. How numerous and how functional the generators were fluctuated throughout the roughly 465 days before the power connection returned to Vieques. Viequenses (people of Vieques) regained power transmission from the big island of Puerto Rico just about three weeks ago.
Much of the public was not informed about what exactly happened to take out power between the main island and Vieques. News said that the underground cable between the big island of Puerto Rico and Vieques was damaged or broken and service was estimated to be restored in two to four years. However, the line itself was never broken, just the connections and towers on either end of the underwater line. After fifteen months of living off of generators Vieques is back on PREPA’s powerline, just in time for PREPA to continue charging residents for power, because the government of Puerto Rico just passed a law on Wednesday that would have prevented PREPA from charging for energy produced by generators they do not own.
In Vieques a number of the residents I spoke to told horror stories of being charged by PREPA for power they did not consume. When they confronted PREPA with pictures of their meter readings, PREPA responded by requiring them to go through a dispute process that was so time consuming, lengthy and convoluted that people found it impossible to win. How each person I spoke with chose to respond was different. Some were cutting their power service with PREPA, figuring out living off grid. Others were resigned to paying the bill anyway to maintain service. Others were continuing to fight by refusing to pay more than their meter reading and submitting a monthly letter explaining why. There is obviously a strong need for an electricity-focused consumer advocate organization in Puerto Rico similar to the Citizen Utility Board here in Minnesota..
PREPA’s response to what went wrong in Vieques has been fractured. The utility has had four CEOs since hurricane Maria hit the island. Current PREPA CEO, José Ortiz has signed a memorandum of understanding with New York Power Authority (NYPA) to provide technical assistance to PREPA in developing microgrids for the islands of Vieques and Culebra. The project is estimated to cost $300 million dollars. No one we spoke to on Vieques had any idea if and when such a project would be undertaken.
Some private sector support for sustainable reliable energy arrived to Vieques (and the smaller neighboring island of Culebra) when Tesla deployed six solar-panel-and-battery projects to power a sanitary sewer treatment plant, Arcadia water pump station, an elderly community, the Boys and Girls Club of Vieques, and the hospital. Tesla funded the equipment and install of these systems and, after it was up and running, found buyers to purchase the systems. A buyer was not found for the hospital system so that solar system was subsequently removed. The old hospital building is now closed up due to black mold and plans to repair it are stalled until federal funds are designated. Meanwhile the hospital is operating in a much smaller nearby building and has a diesel generator, which has had negative impacts on Vieques. The hospital no longer has the room for birthing beds, so women must go to the large island if they want to labor in a hospital.
We were able to visit a couple other privately funded solar installations in Vieques on the roofs of the Fire Department (grant funded) and on The Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, which was funded by Resilient Power Puerto Rico. Dozens of households have installed solar on their own dime. Given the cost of electricity and the vulnerability of power transmission from the big island, Vieques and Culebra are prime candidates for solar-powered microgrids.