July 1, 2020 Read More →

Outages provide power for contractors winning billions from Puerto Rican utility

Huffington Post:

The asthma attack that killed Anibal Dones Torres came in the inky darkness of night.

Hours after he and his family went to bed on Feb. 9, 2018, the 54-year-old awoke gasping for air. He had suffered from asthma since childhood, and his nebulizer was always nearby. But Hurricane María destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid just five months earlier, leaving his home in the eastern mountain town of San Lorenzo with no power. 

“He told me, ‘My God, help me,’” his sister, Ramonita Dones, recalled on a sunny afternoon earlier this year. “You could see how desperate he was.” 

By the time the family got their generator running and fitted the breathing machine to his mouth, Anibal’s lungs were so constricted the oxygen wasn’t working. The outage weakened cell phone signals, too, and calls to 911 kept dropping. When the ambulance finally came, it was too late. 

Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the state-owned power monopoly, has awarded $4.4 billion in contracts to companies hired to repair the extensive damage to the island’s aging electrical grid. But outages are an enduring and lethal fact of life in Puerto Rico, where the grid remains fragile. An earthquake in January 2020 plunged the island into darkness once again, and now they are looking at a hurricane season forecast to be one of the most active in years.

Tom Sanzillo, the finance director at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit that researches energy issues, said the deal exemplified the lucrative business opportunity public contracts offer to former politicians looking to cash in on connections to the sitting administration. (Christie, whose relationship with Trump has at times been critical, was among the president’s first rivals in early 2016 to drop out and endorse the former reality TV host.) 

“For me, the question is, ‘Why is it every time something bad happens to the Puerto Rican people, some big lucrative contract is given to a political friend?’” Sanzillo said.

Sanzillo, a former acting comptroller for New York State, has spent the past month raising concerns about another eyebrow-raising PREPA contract given to a major Democratic donor. 

In March 2019, the utility agreed to pay New Fortress Energy, a fracked-gas infrastructure giant founded and run by billionaire Wes Edens, $1.5 billion to convert two units of the utility’s diesel-burning power plant in San Juan to gas. 

It was the highest price tag of any post-hurricane PREPA deal. But the cost came with an ambitious timeline. New Fortress would have the units up and running by June 2019. The speed with which the company aimed to build the gas infrastructure seemed to support the utility’s claim that fracked gas, a climate-changing fuel that generally produces less toxic air pollution than diesel, would act as a “bridge” to low-emissions renewables and batteries.

[Alexander C. Kaufman and Bianca Graulau]

More: Puerto Rico’s Troubled Utility Is A Goldmine For Contractors

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