Island-Wide Blackout Sweeps Puerto Rico After Power Plant Fire

Island-Wide Blackout Sweeps Puerto Rico After Power Plant Fire
Hurricane Maria aftermath in Puerto Rico. Dangerous power lines and power pole dangle over street traffic in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico (Photo: alejandrophotography, Getty Images)

A fire that broke out at the Costa Sur power plant in Puerto Rico late Wednesday forced an island-wide outage, the biggest blackout this year so far due to an ailing electric grid. Power may not be restored to some parts of the island until Friday, according to Puerto Rico’s electricity grid operator.

The exact cause of the fire remains unclear, but it began around 8:45 p.m. on Wednesday at the power plant located just outside the town of Guayanilla on the southwest coast. It cut power across the island, where more than a million people are still without electricity. About 160,000 people were also left without water, according to NBC News. So far, power has been restored to about 80,000 of the island’s 1.4 million energy consumers, according to government officials.

“The system is being restored little by little,” Kevin Acevedo, a vice president of Luma, told the Associated Press. “The people of Puerto Rico have to understand that it’s a system with a lot of years. Bringing back Puerto Rico’s system is a delicate and complicated process.”

Schools had to be shut down, and nonessential government workers were told to stay home. Meanwhile, the Mayagüez Medical Centre was having issues with its backup generator, which left an intensive care floor without electricity and four patients had to be intubated, CNN reported.

For years, the 3.2 million residents of Puerto Rico have been suffering from continuous outages due to an outdated power grid. Extreme weather conditions such as Hurricane Maria in 2017 have also taken a toll on the island’s power grid, causing major outages along the southern coast. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, a public corporation, was forced to declare bankruptcy in May 2017, in addition to racking up $US9 ($12) billion in public debt. In June 2021, Luma Energy took over Puerto Rico’s electricity transmission and distribution from Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority in an effort to privatize the island’s power grid. But since the company started its operations in Puerto Rico, its residents have complained of worsening conditions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security and several other government agencies announced a plan in February to transfer Puerto Rico’s power grid to renewable energy, with the goal of reaching 100% renewable energy on the island by 2050. Today, only 3% of Puerto Rico’s energy comes from renewable sources, according to El Nuevo Día. The rest is powered by gas, petroleum, and the island’s last coal-fired power plant, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“I will make sure that every federal fund appropriated to Puerto Rico and allocated for the reconstruction of the power grid is used efficiently and effectively,” Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi said in a statement. “I thank the Biden Administration for partnering with us to help us achieve our main goal: transforming our energy system into a more resilient, reliable, affordable and clean one.”