- The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has selected Walter Higgins, a longtime energy executive with experience in the Caribbean and United States, to lead the embattled utility as it completes recovery from Hurricane Maria and deals with an ongoing financial crisis.
- Higgins will replace interim Executive Director Justo Gonzalez, and comes aboard as the utility is fighting for its independence from a federal oversight board.
- Higgins has 40 years experience in the industry and most recently led Ascendant Group, a Bermuda-based holding company for energy infrastructure. He has also worked with four large utilities in the United States.
Higgins led Ascendant from 2012 to 2016, during which Bermuda was hit by three hurricanes, PREPA said in a statement. That could give him vital experience leading Puerto Rico's utility, which even six months after Hurricane Maria is struggling to bring all customers back online.
He has also previously worked with Atlanta Gas Light Co., Portland General Electric, Sierra Pacific Power and Louisville Gas & Electric.
Higgins will replace Gonzalez, who led PREPA briefly during its search for a new executive director. The former head, Ricardo Ramos, resigned following scrutiny over a contract signed with Montana-based Whitefish Energy in the wake of Hurricane Maria to repair and rebuild the island's electric grid.
PREPA has for years faced an aging grid and billions of dollars in debt, but Hurricane Maria's devastation in September of last year added a new dimension to the utility's woes. It has been six months since the storm destroyed the island's grid and knocked out power to every customer. The utility said on Monday that virtually all of the island's generation is back online, though about 7% of customers remained without power.
Higgins takes the helm at PREPA as the utility faces several other difficult situations as well.
The utility now faces scrutiny from lawmakers over allegations of corruption and mismanagement, related to storm recovery. And the utility's independence is being threatened — the Puerto Rico Energy Commission has filed a lawsuit against the island's federal Financial Oversight and Management Board, claiming the board is attempting to usurp control of the island's energy future. This issue is ongoing, though last year the utility and its regulators won a significant victory when a judge ruled against federal oversight at the troubled utility.
Add to that, hackers attacked the utility's computer systems over the weekend, though there was little impact to customers. The utility is also in the midst of a grid modernization effort, which paired with hurricane recovery, could result in a cleaner, more efficient electricity system should the effort be successful.