Congress

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., home of the U.S. Congress >AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

A U.S. House committee has demanded that LUMA Energy, in charge of the transmission and distribution of power in Puerto Rico, release key data amid widespread outages in the U.S. territory that have outraged and frustrated many.

The Committee on Natural Resources ordered LUMA to submit by Oct. 22 information including the number of maintenance workers it employs, the estimated amount of time one generation unit will be inoperable and the compensation packages and titles of employees who earn more than $200,000 a year. Other documents requested include the number of voltage fluctuations that resulted in personal property damage for customers, and the cause(s) of each service disruption that occurred between June 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021.

The letter came two days after officials, including LUMA CEO Wayne Stensby, testified at a hearing held by the committee to learn more about the ongoing outages in Puerto Rico.

“Many of your answers were incomplete. You refused to answer others,” stated the committee, which oversees U.S. territorial affairs.

LUMA previously was sued by Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives for similar information, with the island’s Supreme Court ordering the company to turn over the data, although that hasn’t occurred. At the time, Stensby said the company is private and the information confidential. LUMA has continued to reaffirm these statements.

LUMA issued a statement on Friday saying its more than 3,100 employees are working hard despite “the numerous and very difficult challenges from those that oppose the transformation,” adding that much misinformation has been spread. However, the company did not address the questions and concerns raised by the committee.

Selective Outages Impact Economy

The selective outages, due mainly to several powerplant units under the purview of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) being damaged or offline, have forced schools and workplaces to close and sparked concern for those who depend on insulin or oxygen. The lack of power also has led to losses at thousands of businesses across the island, including a small store that Carmen Lydia de Jesús owns in the central mountain town of Ciales.

She estimates she has lost $6,000 as a result of not being able to open her business, noting that power surges also sparked a fire at her house and caused more than $4,000 in damage. “It’s a miracle I wasn’t burned,” she said. “We can’t continue like this. This is abusive.”

LUMA took the reins of Puerto Rico’s transmission and distribution on June 1 and has faced sharp criticism ever since. The U.S. House committee letter said that in some cases, conditions have worsened since LUMA took over. Legislators demanded information including the number and length of outages, the causes behind every service disruption and the number of voltage fluctuations that caused property damage.

Current and former government officials have blamed the outages on the retirement of experienced employees and a lack of maintenance of generation units owned and managed by PREPA. They also note the power grid remains fragile after Hurricane Maria struck the island in September 2017 as a Category 4 storm, and that reconstruction has yet to start.

Last week, the power authority’s governing board approved a declaration of a state of emergency to speed up contracts and the purchases of costly equipment, although Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he didn’t feel it was needed since the authority was already authorized to do that.

During the congressional hearing, Stensby testified that “the Puerto Rico electric system is arguably the worst in the U.S., and has been for some time, even prior to the tragic hurricanes of 2017. For context, the frequency and duration of outages is more than twice the next worst performer in the U.S., customer service scores are 50 percent worse than the average electric utility, and OSHA safety recordable incidents were approximately five times the industry average,” he said.

“Our operational efforts are focused not just on restoring outages, but fixing infrastructure so we can prevent the outages in the first place. Our rate of pole replacement has nearly doubled, and we’ve reconnected or replaced a number of substations and lines – some of which had not been operational since Hurricane Maria,” he added.

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