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Tina Casey headshot

Puerto Rico Grid Re-Build After Hurricane Maria: Tesla's Elon Musk Proposes, Whitefish Disposes

By Tina Casey

Sometime in the sparkling green future, if millions of U.S. citizens see their entire conventional fossil-fueled power grid destroyed by a hurricane, energy industry leaders will be tapped to replace it with the latest renewable energy and energy storage technology -- and cutting edge "smart" microgrid systems, too. Realistically, though, the 3.4 million U.S. citizens who happen to list Puerto Rico as their official residence should at least be able to count on a wealth of conventional grid experience to get their homes, businesses, hospitals and other essential services up and running again in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Well, file this under D for Dream on, Klingon. A full month after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, most residents are still without power. Adding insult to injury, a hefty portion of the initial repair work -- including 100 miles of transmission line -- has been contracted out to a scantily staffed, inexperienced two-year-old startup company called Whitefish Energy, which lists its headquarters in Whitefish, Montana.

Something is rotten in the state of Montana

In what has become a widely reported bubbling scandal, Whitefish Energy won the largest contract so far to repair Puerto Rico's electricity grid, at $300 million.

Nothing about the contract seems ordinary. As described by The Washington Post, when disaster strikes, utilities ordinarily tap a longstanding mutual aid system to bring in experienced work crews from outside. The situation in Puerto Rico is complicated by its remote location, but it appears that PERPA (the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) gave the option of tapping APPA's aid network only a cursory look.

Whitefish had a staff of two at the time Maria struck, and it has been procuring workers through subcontracts with other utilities. According to the Post, those subcontracts also appear unusual and onerous:

Under the contract, the hourly rate was set at $330 for a site supervisor, and at $227.88 for a “journeyman lineman.” The cost for subcontractors, which make up the bulk of Whitefish’s workforce, is $462 per hour for a supervisor and $319.04 for a lineman. Whitefish also charges nightly accommodation fees of $332 per worker and almost $80 per day for food.

Although the company claims to be "on the ground" in Puerto Rico mere days after the hurricane struck, in the full month since then it has shipped in fewer than 300 workers.

In another oddity, Whitefish happens to be headquartered in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has acknowledged an acquaintance with at the company's top executive.

As for experience, the Post dug up only two relevant contracts won by the company since its inception. One of those was a $1.1 million contract to upgrade a 4.8 mile length of transmission line, with a timeline of 11 months.

By way of comparison, last week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $240 million power restoration contract to a Texas-based company called Fluor. The company already has a history of work in Puerto Rico, which it mentions in a press release:

Fluor’s unique combination of government contingency operations and power experience, along with its 50-year presence in Puerto Rico, will enable ongoing efforts to repair transmission and distribution lines. The contract includes equipment evaluation and repair as well as work towards the re-energization and recommissioning of substations and switching stations.

Fluor also notes that it is a "global engineering, procurement, fabrication, construction and maintenance company" that has been "delivering innovative and integrated solutions across the globe" in its century-plus history. Its operations include renewable energy, too.

That sounds rather more reassuring.

Democratic legislators in Congress have asked for an investigation of the Whitefish contract, so stayed tuned for more on that.

In the meantime, Whitefish is apparently unhappy to see all the questions arising about how it captured this rich contract.

Elon Musk proposes renewables for Puerto Rico

Regardless of whether or not renewable energy is in Fluor's plans for Puerto Rico, clean tech entrepreneur Elon Musk is already on the job.

Musk is best known as the co-founder of the high profile electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, which includes energy storage and solar development in its stable. Tesla has just started work on a large solar-plus-storage project for a children's hospital in Puerto Rico, Hospital del Niño.

That's just one project, but Musk has already helped to gin up interest in a renewable energy future for Puerto Rico. Bloomberg notes that Puerto Rico officials have also been in talks with Sonnen GmbH, Arensis Corp. and Sunnova Energy Corp., which also have a clean tech track record.

One question that could tip the scales is whether or not U.S disaster relief funding could be used to modernized Puerto Rico's power system rather than simply rebuild what Maria destroyed.

In a best case scenario, Puerto Rico's centralized, conventional power grid would be replaced by a network of microgrids.

That option has a fighting chance. Although Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been toeing the Trump administration line in support of large, centralized coal and nuclear power plants, his agency is also moving forward with a longstanding grid modernization initiative that leans on renewable energy integration and microgrids.

It's also worth keeping in mind that for all his nonsense on climate change, Perry was governor of Texas as the state accelerated its booming wind industry, and he has continued to champion renewables as Energy Secretary.

Photo (screenshot): via @Tesla.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey