SAN JUAN, P.R. — Hurricane Maria’s near total destruction of the commonwealth’s electric power grid has transformed Puerto Rico into "Generator Island," according to a story on the Standard Republic. Running on gas or diesel and ranging from lawn mower to moving-truck size, the generators are the only option for the roughly 90% of the island that has no access to the decimated grid. Generators now power big-box stores, high-rise apartment buildings, auto shops, fast-food restaurants, wastewater treatment plants and little country homes.
The generators are a temporary fix that is raising health and safety concerns and highlighting the stark divisions of class in a place with a 45% poverty rate. They are also the only option for most Puerto Ricans for now, as the island struggles with restoring its electrical system — by far the most important and complex challenge the storm has presented.
In a recent news conference on Friday, Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló could not say when the system, which was infamously fragile before the storm, would be fully restored.
“There is no estimated date right now,” he said. “We have established, right at the beginning of this week, we want to have 10% of the energy generation in Puerto Rico. Now we’re up to 10.6%. And our expectation is, within the next month, to have 25%.”
Many big-box stores and hardware stores are selling out of generators for home use. Julito Ramírez, the Planet Honda general manager, said that his company was having a hard time keeping up with demand, selling 250-300 units per day. After ordering all of the generators he could find in the United States, he has turned to a cache he found in Canada.
“We are in that cycle of finding and bringing, and finding and bringing,” Ramírez said. The generator everyone wants, he said, is a $6,000 model that can run a home air-conditioning system. The biggest model he had in stock this week was a $2,300 machine that can run a refrigerator, some lights, a washing machine — but not an air conditioner.
The storm destroyed 85% of the island’s energy transmission and distribution system, and the fix could cost $5 billion, said Ricardo Ramos, chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa. The public utility is saddled with $9 billion in debt and filed for bankruptcy in July. The Puerto Rican government also filed a form of bankruptcy in May.
The rebuilding will be particularly difficult because many lines stretch across the island’s mountainous interior. There is also the question of whether Puerto Rico should modernize its rickety and outmoded system while it rebuilds. On Friday, the governor said that a modernization effort would “run parallel” with the effort to simply restore power. He said he has begun speaking with Elon Musk, the Tesla chief executive, about ways to increase green energy options for Puerto Rico, which received just 2% of its power from renewable sources before the storm.
Across the island, the Army Corps of Engineers has set up 34 huge generators so far, running everything from police departments to water pumping facilities to a Prepa office, according to Lisa Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Corps. Corps officials said on Friday that 177 other generators arrived later, with some of them headed to the United States Virgin Islands.