Puerto Rico’s grid gets battered — again

Hurricane Fiona is the latest disaster to hit Puerto Rico and its beleaguered electric grid.

The Category 1 storm pummeled Puerto Rico on Sunday, cutting power to the island’s 3 million residents and leaving most of them without potable water. (1.3 million remained without power as of Monday.)

It also unleashed landslides, severe flash flooding and wind gusts up to 103 mph. Hundreds of people were evacuated or rescued.

President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency Sunday morning, unlocking federal funds for disaster relief. But the U.S. territory’s recent history suggests aid money does not guarantee a speedy recovery.

The hurricane hit two days before the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that killed nearly 3,000 people and wreaked havoc on the power grid. A series of earthquakes in 2019 likewise devastated large swaths of the Caribbean island. Many residents are still recovering from the two disasters.

The island has a long history of grid crises and varied attempts to fix the system. Puerto Rico is large compared with other island territories, and its top industry is manufacturing, which requires constant and reliable power. But the island produces no conventional fuels and relies heavily on expensive imports.

A rotating cast of grid officials has tried for over a decade to deploy more solar energy, in an effort to decrease power costs and shore up reliability. But the island’s new grid operator, LUMA Energy LLC, has faced criticism from residents who say blackouts have worsened under the company’s leadership.

A lack of swift federal action after previous disasters has only made the island more vulnerable. The federal government awarded Puerto Rico billions of dollars after 2017’s Hurricane Maria to rebuild its damaged infrastructure, including projects to transform the territory’s failing electrical system.

But a recent federal audit found that just 19 percent of the recovery funding has been spent, largely due to constantly changing policy and guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In addition to devastating the power grid, severe hurricanes are working hand-in-hand with sea level rise to eat away at Puerto Rico’s 700 miles of coastline. More than half of the island’s 78 municipalities are coastal, making it distinctly vulnerable to sea-level rise, erosion and flooding.

Hotels, condos and homes border many of the island’s beaches, often just feet away from a shoreline that has been creeping inland. Years of infrastructure development in high-hazard regions and poor soil management have exacerbated the problem.

It’s Monday — thank you for tuning into POLITICO’s Power Switch. I’m your host, Arianna Skibell. Power Switch is brought to you by the journalists behind E&E News and POLITICO Energy. Send your tips, comments, questions to [email protected]

Today in POLITICO’s energy podcast: Catherine Morehouse explains why FERC Chair Richard Glick might be out of a job and what his priorities are if the Senate reconfirms him.

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That’s it for today, folks! Thanks for reading.

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