Now that Puerto Rico is officially into the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, businesses large and small must brace for the possibility of interrupted telecommunication and electricity services due to a storm, considering that clients have been opting for digital transactions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Especially after experiencing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017, businesses must be mindful of the importance of an uninterrupted internet connection. With the rising prevalence of online purchases, credit card use and internet-based customer service, companies need to incorporate a contingency plan to be able to continue operating their businesses and offering alternate payment methods in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
To cater to this demand, WorldNet —a Puerto Rican telecommunications company and internet provider for businesses— partnered with Expedition Communications to offer satellite internet to its clients. The satellite complements the existing fiber-optics service provided by WorldNet and ensures connection even if the local networks are down. This service, called WorldNet Sky Internet, was launched last week.
“We were here when Hurricane Maria hit. It was bad,” said Jerry Creekbaum, CTO for Expedition Communications. “FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has reported that nearly 40 percent of businesses won’t reopen once they’ve been closed by a disaster – we have a chance to change that. By partnering with WorldNet and making it easier to diversify service, we help businesses be proactive in their preparation. Ultimately, our goal is to give these businesses a chance to stay active in the face of disaster and have a much better chance at full recovery should a disaster strike.”
This year the utility has 1,116 installed and operable generators
Unlike traditional internet with fiber-optics, satellite internet does not rely on ground telecommunications infrastructure, so customers would remain connected even if there was a collapse of the system, as experienced in 2017. Moreover, if the electric grid failed, businesses could use renewable energy sources or fuel-based generators to power their establishments, which —combined with satellite internet— would allow them to continue their operations. In addition, subscribers of this connection are also able to do phone calls through the satellite.
José Abril, director of Sales and Business Development at Expedition Communications, told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL that the satellite dish allows for 25 megabytes (MB) for downloads and 3 MB to upload content, although “the final customer experience is that they will have much more speed than that.” The satellite dishes are installed within three to five business days after ordering without affecting the rooftop of the commercial establishment, and are designed to withstand hurricane-force winds of up to 125 miles per hour or a category 3 storm.
“We are sure that it is a necessary complement for the Puerto Rico market, particularly because after Hurricane Maria, the average number of clients who were without communications was 83 days. Imagine spending three months with your business closed because there is no electricity, there are no communications, you cannot place orders, you cannot do anything. That is what this solution represents: it is to solve this problem that has affected us for a long time. Actually, today there is no solution that is as complete as this,” Abril stated.
María Virella, president of WorldNet, also underscored the need for hurricane preparedness.
“It is increasingly important for companies to make their contingency plans. And this is an opportunity that they have to acquire a service at a price that is accessible to any company. You have to think about what would cost you more: make this payment and acquire this service, or that at a given moment you run out of service, which costs you every day that you are without service. We saw it in Hurricane Maria and right now with COVID, how companies have been affected every time they are out of service,” she asserted.
Solar Energy a Viable Resource
Apart from commercial establishments, counting on reliable internet connection and energy has been pivotal for a large sum of the population who —due to the coronavirus pandemic— have been working remotely or rely on these services for online education. By late May alone, roughly 30,000 clients of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) were in the dark due to multiple system failures.
Karla Zambrana, general manager of Sunnova Energy Corp., explained that the company has more than 20,000 clients who have purchased their solar panels and that after the 2017 storms, Sunnova has been offering storage options for its residential clients. “After Hurricane Maria, we have had to reinvent ourselves in many ways and part of the reinventions that we have all gone through, and I include myself, is to seek this type of renewable, resilient and safe energy solutions that can prepare and protect us against any weather event,” she said.
She noted that the threat of natural disasters, plus power interruptions expected during the electric system’s transition and the possibility of higher energy rates, have inspired more clients to seek renewable energy sources.
“We at Sunnova will always promote the use of renewable and resilient energy. Perhaps not at the last minute when we are already under a hurricane warning, but rather prepare in advance, take the necessary measures, always ensuring the well-being of our family and those close to us,” Zambrana said. “I urge that everyone in Puerto Rico should have the facility of an energy system with storage, that would be my message to everyone; always looking after the well-being of their quality of life and their families.”
LUMA ‘Ready’ for Storms
Just as Puerto Rico entered hurricane season on June 1, LUMA Energy took the reins of the energy transmission and distribution from PREPA on Tuesday, as established in the public-private partnership (PPP) deal. With a debilitated electric energy infrastructure and lingering trauma from Maria, questions surfaced over whether the private company is ready to withstand hurricane season.
Furthermore, the PPP agreement includes a “force majeure” clause in which LUMA would be allowed to desist from complying with the contractual agreement if a natural disaster impacts the island and causes serious damage to the electrical system. This clause is a regular feature of many such agreements. As reported by THE WEEKLY JOURNAL, LUMA president & CEO Wayne Stensby denied that the company would cease its operations in the wake of a storm.
15-year agreement to transform bankrupt utility
“Our parent company is one of the organizations that moves toward storms, we don’t run away from storms. In the 2020 season alone, we responded with more than 2 million hours across 20 named storms across more than 40 utilities in the U.S. So, we understand storms, we understand storm response, we understand the importance of emergency response and the infrastructure that it takes in order to facilitate that… We’re here for 15 years and we’re going to make [the infrastructure] better,” he said.
Mere days before LUMA’s takeover, Stensby also affirmed that the emergency plans the company submitted have been approved, so they have the necessary number of resources and the truck fleet to address a weather-related emergency.
He assured that the company is ready to act in the event of a disaster and pointed out that the contingencies adopted by LUMA consider a category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale as a “base scenario” to articulate the response.
Likewise, La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Noelia García acknowledged the “fragile” electricity infrastructure, but stated that “we are ready to address the worst scenario, tempering the different experiences that we have had previously, and our plan integrates not only the eventuality of hurricanes but certainly the experiences that we have had of pandemics and earthquakes.”
Busy Hurricane Season
The Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted another busy hurricane season in the Atlantic, which includes Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
According to the federal agency, forecasters predict a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season, a 30 percent chance of a near-normal season, and a 10 percent chance of a below-normal season. Despite these numbers, forecasters do not anticipate the “historic level of storm activity” reported in 2020, which saw 31 tropical depressions, 30 of which became tropical storms, and 14 developed into hurricanes.
“For 2021, a likely range of 13 to 20 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 5 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher) is expected. NOAA provides these ranges with a 70 percent confidence. The Atlantic hurricane season extends from June 1 through November 30,” NOAA explained, adding that there is a possibility of the La Niña atmospheric phenomenon returning later this hurricane season.
“Although NOAA scientists don’t expect this season to be as busy as last year, it only takes one storm to devastate a community,” said Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator. “The forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are well-prepared with significant upgrades to our computer models, emerging observation techniques, and the expertise to deliver the life-saving forecasts that we all depend on during this, and every, hurricane season.”
- The Associated Press and reporter Yaritza Rivera Clemente contributed to this story.