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As Puerto Rico’s electricity crisis worsens, lawmakers investigating blackouts seek answers


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Hundreds of thousands of residents of Puerto Rico have experienced widespread power outages, longer service restore times, poor customer service, and voltage fluctuations that often damage home appliances and other appliances home electronics since Luma Energy partially took over the island’s electricity grid in summer.

Lawmakers in Congress and US Territory are now seeking specific answers from Luma Energy, which has a transmission and distribution contract for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which could explain why the electricity crisis is worsening in the middle. rising electricity prices and unreliability. service.

In an interview with NBC News, Wayne Stensby, CEO of Luma Energy, said that “in almost all respects Puerto Rico has the poorest power system in the United States.”

“So we are here every day, we are improving things step by step,” he said. “I think the biggest challenge is how quickly we can actually make real improvements for our customers.”

Despite the challenge, Stensby said he was convinced the food crisis “would get better month by month and year by year.”

But that promise was called into question after Puerto Rico began to experience a growing number of continuous blackouts, which worsened between August and September.

“It’s more and more difficult to work”

Puerto Ricans like Brenda Otero, who owns a bakery near San Juan, have seen their electricity bills increase by almost 33% this year. And last week, his business lost $ 1,000 due to constant blackouts and lack of electricity.

“It’s getting harder and harder to work and pay the store bills, and we want to keep working,” she said.

In a letter sent to Stensby on Friday, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee requested access to key information, including the number of experienced workers Luma Energy employs to repair damaged power lines, as well as compensation and titles of employees who earn more than $ 200,000 per year, among other data.

The committee, which oversees U.S. territorial affairs, said the information would help it better control Luma Energy’s work since the private company took over power transmission and distribution in June as part of the partial privatization. from the electrical network.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, a public company, continues to be responsible for controlling power generation units.

After Hurricane Maria decimated the island’s dilapidated power grid in 2017 – triggering the second longest blackout in the world – the power authority struggled to keep the lights on for Puerto Ricans. Additionally, corruption and mismanagement within the ruling authority contributed to the island’s financial crisis for a decade by accumulating $ 9 billion in public debt, more than that of any other government agency in Porto. Rico.

Otero said she remembers the constant service interruptions after Maria, “but we knew it was a hurricane that put it all out, but now we don’t have a hurricane, and it’s worse now.”

The natural resources committee sent its letter to Stensby two days after refusing or providing incomplete answers to some questions during a Congressional watch hearing organized by the committee last week.

Some of the financial information requested by Congress is normally available through Securities and Exchange Commission filings, which are documents that public companies are required to file periodically. These documents are not publicly available for Luma Energy.

Luis Raúl Torres Cruz, a member of the island’s House of Representatives who heads the energy committee, sued Luma Energy over the summer in an attempt to get much of the same information Congress is looking for. .

“Luma refused to provide us with any information and instead they started an appeal to the courts,” Torres Cruz told NBC News in Spanish.

As part of the appeal process, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico on Tuesday dismissed Luma Energy’s second petition not to disclose the information requested by Puerto Rican lawmakers.

In a lengthy statement, Luma Energy responded to the decision by stating that “no company should be required to disclose the identity and salaries of its employees, trade secrets, sensitive operational and infrastructure information, without a demonstrated legitimate legislative objective; even more, without complying with applicable law and due process ”, adding that he“ will have the opportunity to raise his defenses and objections when the case resumes before the Court of First Instance ”.

On Friday, the electricity authority declared a state of emergency due to the “critical condition” of its production plants.

William Ríos, director of power generation at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, said the largest power plant in the San Juan area, known as Palo Seco, has suffered shutdowns almost every week during the last few months.

Steam leaks from the boilers forced the authority responsible for electricity to shut down the plant. Whenever this happens, the unit is taken out of service for a few days. This problem has occurred at least 10 times in the past few weeks, he said.

Other problems causing power outages involved algae getting clogged in the condenser water filters.

“In the last few months we have had almost weekly unit shutdowns but when the unit is stable we can have the unit in service for months,” he added.

Ríos said the blackouts made it very clear that Puerto Rico’s outdated power grid, which was built in the 1960s, was hanging by a thread. In order to modernize the grid and improve electricity production, it is imperative to replace parts of the damaged boilers at Palo Seco, as well as in the power stations on the island.

Stensby agrees.

“It’s going to get better,” he said, “but basically until we have made a substantial improvement in the quantity and / or quality of the generation, it’s going to be difficult.”

Nicole Acevedo reported from New York while Gabe Gutierrez and Olympia Sonnier reported from Puerto Rico.

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