Puerto Rico raises alarms as FEMA ends power generation mission

Puerto Rico’s government and private institutions are worried the island’s electric grid could once again collapse, after federal officials announced the end of an emergency power generation mission.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials last month informed Puerto Rico’s reconstruction authority, known as Cor3, that it would cease operations by March 15 of two emergency power generating stations with a 350 megawatt capacity installed on the island.

The announcement puts Puerto Rico in a bind, as officials there are hoping to keep the generators online through the end of the 2024 hurricane season next November.

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“FEMA is trying to remove those generators by March 15, 2024,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D- N.Y.) said. “I feel strongly that FEMA has a humanitarian obligation to keep those temporary generators in place until Puerto Rico has enough permanent power generation to replace them.”

“Removing temporary generators without permanent replacement would constitute an act of cruelty against the people of Puerto Rico,” he added.

Puerto Rican officials are also frustrated that their original request for 700 megawatts was downgraded to 350, and that the project is slated to have about a six month lifespan.

In November of 2022, FEMA officials said they would have 600 or 700 megawatts up and running in two or three months, according to a report from the Associated Press, but the first plant generating 150 megawatts came online in July. The second plant, with 200 megawatts, came online in September, according to FEMA.

The emergency power plants were installed as part of the response to Hurricane Fiona, and play a key role in the reconstruction of the island’s power generation infrastructure.

The FEMA plants are essentially plugging holes in the system while Genera PR — the company that took over generation from state-owned utility PREPA in July — performs repairs on legacy equipment.

“Genera basically said that if they get this additional power until the 2025 hurricane season, they would be able to repair all the units they need to repair by then,”Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) told The Hill in a recent interview. “If they don’t have this generation available, it could delay their work by one year. So that’s the bottom line.”

Earlier this month, Cor3 Executive Director Manuel Laboy-Rivera wrote FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, asking her to extend the mission.

FEMA contends it is bound by law to end the mission, but officials in Puerto Rico say that’s not the case.

“If there is ambiguity in the statute, then FEMA ought to err on the side of preventing a humanitarian crisis and keeping the lights on on the island,” Torres said. “That’s what common sense requires. That’s what humanitarianism requires.”

FEMA officials say they’ve already extended the mission.

“Initially, the demobilization and end date for the temporary generation mission was December 1, 2023,” FEMA spokesperson Dasha Castillo told The Hill in an email. “This date was based on the projected timeline of having temporary generation online at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) Palo Seco and San Juan facilities by July, providing six (6) months of 350 MW of additional baseload power to the Puerto Rico power grid.”

“Since the buildout for the temporary generation at the San Juan facility took longer than expected, FEMA extended the DFA mission to March 15, 2024, to ensure six (6) months of temporary generation is provided,” Castillo added.

She also explained that FEMA and the Puerto Rico government are in discussions for the island’s government to assume control of the plants, rather than having them dismantled.

Puerto Rico’s power generation infrastructure and power grid were aged and unreliable, even before the devastation of Hurricane María in 2017.

“For me, the failure of the electric grid in Puerto Rico is the single greatest infrastructure crisis in the United States,” Torres said. “And for me, there should be no greater infrastructure priority than to provide Puerto Rico with the power that it needs.”

The unreliability of electric power on the island affects the territory’s economy, but also basic humanitarian infrastructure like hospitals and dialysis centers.

Though the island’s electric infrastructure is a top priority, Pierluisi said the March deadline for deactivation allows “a little bit of a cushion” to discuss options.

Pierluisi said the immediate priority regarding FEMA reconstruction efforts nationwide is to get Congress to fund inflation adjustment for the agency’s ongoing reconstruction projects.

“There has been an incredible increase in the cost of construction materials that nobody anticipated and even though in the formula they applied back then in coming up with estimates, there was some inflation factor, it was never — nobody expected the kind of inflation we had,” he said.

“And the problem with this issue is that it can affect the scope of the reconstruction,” the governor continued. “That is ongoing, and I am raising this issue at the top level.”

But advocates for Puerto Rico worry that the island’s humanitarian, infrastructure or reconstruction needs will be received with disinterest by most federal legislators.

“For much of Congress, the humanitarian needs of Puerto Rico seem to be an afterthought rather than a priority,” Torres said.

“There may be nothing that frustrates me more than the double standard against Puerto Rico, the callous and cruel indifference to humanitarian suffering of Puerto Rico, and there’s no greater manifestation of the suffering than the failing energy grid,” he added.

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