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Who’s To Blame?

By Carlos Romero Barcelo

September 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In 1976, the power system in Puerto Rico was in shambles. Unexpected blackouts were occurring more than once a week in different parts of the island, and the system was collapsing. It became one of the focal issues in the 1976 election.

When I was sworn in as governor in January 1977, one of my priorities was to deal with the electric power system in Puerto Rico. To begin with, I asked for a complete analysis of our system indicating the capacity of each and every power station, the daily peak demand for electricity, and the condition of our system. I also gave instructions that I should be provided every Monday with a weekly report of the daily peak demand and the daily generating capacity of our electric power system. The report had to be on my desk first thing on Monday mornings.

I found out we had a total capacity of approximately 4,400 megawatts if all plants were fully operating. The peak demand at that time was approximately 1,900 megawatts. In other words, we had over 100% excess capacity above the peak demand for any single day, but we had available only approximately 2,100 megawatts, and the system was so deteriorated that plants were constantly failing and blackouts were occurring frequently. I was informed that no other system in the world had as much excess capacity as we had–if all the plants were working properly. We had a lot more generating capability than would be needed for decades to come.

We proceeded to contract a study that included an evaluation and recommendations that would allow us to have a system at optimum efficiency. We received proposals from several power companies, including Con Edison and the Georgia Power Co. We selected the Georgia Power Co., which proceeded to make an exhausting and very detailed study and analysis of our system with recommendations to bring it up to peak performance. By 1983, we had reconstructed all of our plants and had established a preventive-maintenance program that allowed us to keep our system in optimum condition.

We were then able to generate 3,300 to 3,500 megawatts at any time, instead of the 2,100 maximum in 1977. The peak demand in 1983 was approximately 2,100 to 2,200 megawatts. We had much more capacity to generate than was required, and our transmission lines and distribution system had been brought to topnotch condition.

From 1985 to 1993, the preventive-maintenance program was apparently abandoned or ignored, and the system again began to deteriorate. From 1993 to 2001, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) Executive Director Miguel Cordero did an excellent job of re-establishing the preventive-maintenance organization and plan for the generating plants and the distribution system.

During the past three and a half years, however, the preventive-maintenance program has again been neglected, and the whole system has again deteriorated. Not only has the system deteriorated in the past three and a half years, but also ill-advised decisions were made during Tropical Storm Jeanne. Remember, Jeanne was (or is) a tropical storm, not a hurricane like Hugo or Georges. Jeanne’s strongest winds were less than 70 miles per hour. Hugo and Georges had winds more than twice as strong.

In the last few days, everyone seems to have forgotten that it was Gov. Sila Calderon herself who informed the people of Puerto Rico at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 15 that she had given the order to shut down the system.

The issue being discussed during the past few days, however, has been whether the executive director of Prepa made the right decision to shut off the system before it ever became absolutely necessary to do so. Those of us who heard the press conference last Wednesday still remember the arrogant and authoritarian manner in which the governor said she had given the order to shut down the system as a protective measure.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Did she know what effects that decision would have on millions of people? I began remembering what I had been told by my advisers when I was governor. In the first place, I had been told, the system shouldn’t be turned off unless it became absolutely necessary to do so. In the second place, if the system had to be turned off, it should be done gradually to prevent sudden changes in temperature, which could twist and bend the axles in the machinery.

Also, with a sudden shutdown, water would probably leak into the turbines, which would have to be dried out before being turned on again. This would take anywhere from one to three days. Another reason the system shouldn’t be turned off unless absolutely necessary is that when the system is working, it provides information on where damage to the system occurs. When the system is turned off, there is no way to know where the damage occurs. Therefore, it takes much longer to repair, because you have to look for the fallen lines or damaged towers.

But worst of all, I kept thinking how inconsiderate it was of the governor to order the electric power system to be turned off without notifying the Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa) in advance so they, in turn, could notify the users. Since approximately 50% of the water is distributed by electric pumps, millions would be affected by the shutdown.

There is a written protocol in Prepa that carefully describes all of the precautions and steps to be followed prior to shutting off the system. The written protocol has instructions to indicate who should be notified, such as Prasa, industries in general, hospitals and other medical facilities, hotels, and others who depend heavily on electricity. But most important to notify are the families who have food stored in their refrigerators and freezers, in order to allow them to take precautions and save as much as they can.

Obviously, the governor didn’t care who suffered, since she and her family weren’t going to be lacking electricity or water in La Fortaleza. Apparently, she didn’t care how many families lost all the food they had in their freezers and refrigerators. Many of them had just bought their food supply for September.

If she had been concerned about how the people would be affected by her decision to turn off the power without any notice, she would have learned that power lines are built and installed to resist winds of up to 170 miles per hour. She would also have learned that when a hurricane or storm is approaching, you can regionalize the system and, if absolutely necessary, slowly shut off specific areas without affecting the rest of the system that isn’t in any danger.

Her decision to turn off the system was tantamount to criminal negligence. Her officials are now trying to protect her and are now assuming responsibility for the decisions that they were ordered to make. And, by the way, let us not forget that candidate for governor Anibal Acevedo Vila was with her during the press conference, obviously supporting her decision and enjoying the press coverage.

The actions and the cover-ups that are now under way must be carefully scrutinized in public hearings. We must make a commitment to hold public hearings in the Legislature to begin during the first month of 2005. Any investigation now by the Popular Democratic Party-dominated Legislature would be a sham and would be used to cover up the misdeeds instead of uncovering what really happened.

The greatest damage in Puerto Rico wasn’t done by Tropical Storm Jeanne but by Gov. Sila Calderon’s decision to turn off the power system. The tropical storm was improperly named Jeanne. It should have been named Sila.

Carlos Romero Barcelo is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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