WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2017 — The Army Corps of Engineers is installing up to 500 temporary generators until Puerto Rico’s old and deteriorating power grid can be made operational again, but long-term total power restoration could take nearly a year, the Corps’ chief of engineers told reporters at the Pentagon today.
The Corps is starting with public facilities and it faces power restoration to 3.4 million houses on the U.S. territory, some of which are in remote areas, Army Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite said.
Semonite said the island governor’s immediate goals are to restore power to 30 percent of Puerto Rico by the end of October and to 50 percent by the end of November, which the general said he considers a challenge.
The Corps is responding to the effects of four major hurricanes that struck the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands within a six-week span. Puerto Rico remains a challenge in part because it is an island, making it difficult to receive supplies, such as the 62,000 utility poles needed for power restoration.
“Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is a completely different paradigm,” he said. “People have asked me in the last several weeks … ‘Why don’t you do in Puerto Rico what you could have done in Florida?’ Because it is an island and it is very, very hard to just drive hundreds of pole trucks … down into the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.”
The Corps also needs about 338 utility towers, Semonite said, noting that each one is 75 feet long and must be flown in. “And then we need an awful a lot of connectors and cable, as well. But the whole goal is to get the transmission up and running,” he added.
The Corps’ power strategy is fourfold, starting with the temporary generators. As of today, 148 have been put in place, Semonite said.
The second line of effort is generation from the power plants.
“We need about 2,500 megawatts of power … to be able to restore the power back up to where it was at the beginning of the storm. Today, right now, we’ve got about 21.6 percent of that up,” he said.
Transmission is the third line of effort in the strategy to restore power, Semonite said. “The No. 1 goal right now of what the Corps is doing is to be able to move this electricity that’s in the south up to the north,” he explained.
The fourth line of effort is distribution — getting power to homes and other buildings along terrain that is a massive logistics challenge, the general said.
“There are seven large power plants that normally run off of fossil fuel,” he said. There are also about seven solar or wind power plants and 21 hydropower plants, Semonite added. But, the general explained, the majority of that power is generated in the southern part of the island, while the majority of the need is in the north — particularly around San Juan.
And though transmission and distribution remain a challenge, there just isn’t enough capacity in Puerto Rico’s existing power plants to provide electricity to the island, Semonite said.
“Even if in fact all of the power plants are up and running, we would have a generation shortfall,” he said. “So about a week and a half ago, we cut a contract to a large company to come back in and place a temporary power plant in San Juan.”
The Corps and the Defense Department are working alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Puerto Rico’s local government to restore power to the island, he emphasized.
Restoring power to the island is going to take a massive, long-term rebuild of the power grid, Semonite said.
“So what we are doing is to go all-out and put as many generators in as we can, mainly in public facilities. We got a list from the governor, and all the mayors donated to that list,” the general said. “And the list has got about 428 different requirements on it today.”