Welcome! The Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives (AREA) is a member-owned federation of 22 electric distribution cooperatives.

Co-ops eager to help Puerto Rico, but effort is on hold

More than three months after Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico, an estimated one-third of the island’s 3.4 million residents still lack power. Most of those are in rural areas with rugged terrain, and because co-ops have a unique understanding of the challenges in such areas, they’re a logical choice to help with power restoration.

A concerted effort to bring co-ops to the island only started in mid-December, but even before Christmas, some of Alabama’s co-ops had  committed to sending men, equipment or both.

But a plan to put co-op personnel on the ground as early as mid-January is temporarily on hold.

NRECA got commitments to send 54 people from across the country to Puerto Rico, and 28 are from Alabama. We should be proud of that level of commitment, says Mike Temple, AREA’s director of training who has been working with NRECA on the effort.

But there is considerable uncertainty with the logistics, including housing and difficulties securing trucks and equipment. So NRECA has decided to hold off on sending co-op personnel for now, but made clear that it is not abandoning its commitment.

It’s the right call, Temple says. He went to Puerto Rico in mid-December, as a representative of NRECA, to assess the situation and to offer a recommendation about sending co-op crews to the island.

Initially, Temple felt comfortable sending co-op personnel. Teams already in place there felt confident that housing and food for the crews would not be an issue. And other utilities in the U.S. were committing material and trucks.

But by Christmas, it became clear that getting those trucks and material down there was a major challenge. All such material has to be delivered by barge; the journey from the mainland is not quick by any means, but the real issue is the cost. There’s a cost to send each truck, but if a barge is not full to capacity, the cost goes up. So finding barges that are almost to capacity but still have room, and which are in place and ready to go, will be a challenge.

The need is certainly there: Restoration is at a crawl because the grid collapsed, the electric utility is bankrupt and the logistics are daunting, according to a Dec. 15 story in The Washington Post. Crews and supplies have to come from the mainland, then make their way into rugged interior areas.

The outdated power infrastructure, run by a public utility $9 billion in debt, collapsed. The territory has no money to restore electricity to businesses that power the economy, and the economy continues to weaken.

According to a story in the Dec. 23 New York Times, almost 50,000 power poles need to be repaired or replaced. Add 500 towers to that; the towers have to be installed in stages and it can take up to 10 days to finish just one.

The will among co-ops to help is strong, but the recovery is bogged down by politics and the logistical problems. And some companies and co-ops fear that FEMA reimbursements to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which would then reimburse the co-ops, might be late or not come at all. And of course, PREPA itself is bankrupt, which only heightens the concern.

Though the NRECA plan is on pause, work continues. There are 3,000 contractors already on the island, including PREPA’s own workers and crews mobilized under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracts.

The U.S. electric utility industry has also deployed seven incident management teams to support restoration efforts under way. These teams, comprising seven to 10 operations experts, are assigned to seven key regions and are coordinating with PREPA and the Corps of Engineers. The idea is that NRECA will be assigned to one of those regions.

A commander with the Corps of Engineers was quoted in the Times story as saying that the hard-to-reach rural areas will not get power back on until the end of May – just in time for the 2018 hurricane season.