Puerto Rico Loses Power as Fragile Grid Fails Repeatedly

(Bloomberg) -- Last week, more than 800,000 Puerto Rico utility customers lost power when a single tree fell on a transmission line.

A month earlier, another line failure affected hundreds of thousands, while a substation fire crippled power plants in February. Then, there was the November blackout, which hit San Juan just as it celebrated the milestone of 50 percent power generation after Hurricane Maria last year.

Now it’s happened yet again.

An island-wide power failure shut down businesses Wednesday and prompted the international airport to operate on generators. The island’s power utility said it could take 24 to 36 hours to restore service.

“Back to September 20th,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz tweeted, a reference to the day Hurricane Maria mowed down the island and its power grid. She tagged comedian Stephen Colbert, among others.

Indeed, Puerto Rico’s blackouts have become so common that they’re now a running joke -- albeit a sad, debilitating one, affecting the well-being of the island’s 3.3 million residents, who are U.S. citizens.

The repeated episodes underscore how fragile the island’s Hurricane Maria recovery remains even as the next hurricane season is less than two months away. They also highlight how badly the island needs to undertake an overhaul of the power grid, which was considered inefficient and vulnerable even before it was obliterated by the Category 4 hurricane in September. A redesign is in the government’s plans, but there’s no chance it will get that done before tropical storms start churning through the Caribbean again this summer.

Buried Island

Governor Ricardo Rossello is trying to lure investment and reinvigorate the economy after a decade of recession. But those efforts could prove futile if companies can’t count on the power infrastructure.

“The interruption represents millions of dollars in loss for the economy at all levels, large and small businesses,” said Heide Calero, an economist with H. Calero Consulting. "It also puts new business opportunities at risk.”

Even before Maria, Puerto Rico’s economy was buried under $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities. The bankrupt commonwealth’s bonds have doubled in price from their post-Hurricane Maria lows, as traders suspect that an influx of federal aid and insurance money will improve prospects for repayment. But some observers see a disconnect between the securities’ prices and the dire situation on the ground for the island’s residents.

After living months without electricity, most residents have been reconnected to the grid, but the regular power failures -- although often short-lived -- signal to many that the repairs are mere temporary fixes. The flickering lights are also hurting the island’s efforts to get people back to work.

“The sad reality is we’re not back to business,” said Daphne Barbeito, owner of tour agency Cruceros to Go in San Juan. “Businesses are in survival mode, and these blackouts aren’t allowing us to really start back up.”

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