PREPA forgoes mutual aid, opting for little-known contractor
- The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) declined to ask for help from mainland electric utilities in the days after Hurricane Maria, instead turning to a small Montana-based contractor to carry out grid restoration practices.
- Earlier this week, PREPA CEO Ricardo Ramos told E&E News that his bankrupt utility did not reach out to munis on the continental U.S. because he was unsure it could pay them back for assistance. About 90% of the island remains without power weeks after the storm hit.
- The American Public Power Association (APPA), the trade group for U.S. munis, confirmed that mutual assistance programs were not activated, but said PREPA had already contracted with Whitefish Energy by the time the trade group convened a conference call to coordinate aid. PREPA did not respond to requests for comment.
Headlines out of Puerto Rico left many power sector observers on the mainland scratching their heads this week.
With more than 90% of his customers without power, E&E reported PREPA declined to reach out to mainland utilities standing by to offer assistance in Puerto Rico over cost concerns.
"The day that the [Army] Corps of Engineers showed up and offered the assistance, we immediately accepted because we knew that financially it was a better model," Ramos told the outlet. The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing grid restoration on the island and on Monday awarded its first contract — $35 million for a 50 MW generator at a San Juan power plant.
But an APPA official told Utility Dive that PREPA had already signed a contract for grid restoration with Whitefish Energy by the time the municipal utility trade group convened its first conference call with the utility on mutual assistance.
After Maria hit, it took more than a week for APPA to get in contact with PREPA officials, according to Michael Hyland, APPA vice president for engineering, who coordinated muni response efforts. By the time they reached company officials, PREPA told the assembled industry and government officials they did not need to activate mutual aid aggrements.
"Once they had called in they briefed out that they had signed an agreement with Whitefish," Hyland said. "PREPA at that point told us everything was taken care of."
Whitefish, a division of Brazil's Comtrafo S.A., works through subcontractors and has already mobilized 200 power line workers "with an additional 200-300 in the planning stages," according to a fact sheet supplied to Utility Dive. The Jacksonville Electric Authority, a Florida muni, has also sent 41 workers and more than 20 employees of the New York Power Authority are onsite working with PREPA on grid damage appraisals.
PREPA first made contact with Whitefish in the interval between Hurricanes Irma and Maria, E&E reports, when Ramos said it was one of two mainland companies to respond to a request for transmission repairs.
"If we wouldn't have lost communications the day after Maria, I would have called mutual aid, and I would have contracted Whitefish as well," Ramos told the outlet.
A Whitefish spokesperson confirmed the PREPA contract but could not speak to its timing. CEO Andy Techmanski was not available for comment.
Whitefish says in its fact sheet that it recently completed work with the Western Area Power Administration and a Washington muni to rebuild power lines. While the company is not well-known in the power sector, Hyland said conversations with Techmanski were heartening — "he knows his stuff."
It remains unclear whether other bidders were considered for the Whitefish contract or if PREPA would have reached out to mainland utilities if communications had not been cut off. Whitefish did not elaborate on the contract, but Hyland said despite the communication difficulties, PREPA's decision to use contractors was not unusual compared to other utilities in disaster situations.
"We cant get ourselves bottled up into [thinking] this isn't the way it's normally done — there is no normal," Hyland said. "I think we see utilities do what they is best to get the lights back on in the most efficient, cost-effective manner and that's going to be up to them in their own situations."
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