Puerto Rico Substation Fire Causes Three-Night Blackout

This September, Puerto Rico suffered an island-wide blackout that left 1.5 million utility customers without power for more than 50 hours and reportedly resulted in multimillion-dollar losses for its already troubled economy.

The blackout in the U.S. territory with a population of about 3.5 million occurred on September 21, when a blaze erupted in a substation at the 900-MW Aguirre power plant (Figure 3) located in the southeastern part of the island. Two transmission lines of 230 kV each also failed, said the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).

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3. A blaze and then darkness. A fire at a substation of the oil-fired Aguirre power plant (shown here) in southeast Puerto Rico triggered a 50-hour-long island-wide blackout beginning September 21. Courtesy: PREPA

Power failures aren’t uncommon in Puerto Rico, which has suffered from economic problems for nearly a decade. PREPA, too, is financially stricken, mired in debt of $9 billion that some observers allege stems from years of mismanagement. But the September blackout was unusual because it lasted nearly three nights. Nearly a week after the event, on September 28, Puerto Rico Senator Ramón Luis told reporters that there were still people without power service.

As well as causing traffic snarls and disrupting train services in San Juan, island authorities said 15 fires broke out during the blackout, owing to malfunctioning generators. Water service across the island was also affected.

During a hearing to investigate the grid failure held by a Puerto Rico senate committee barely two weeks after the blackout, experts noted that the country’s infrastructure remains dilapidated, despite borrowing million of dollars over the past few years.

Criticism of PREPA has begun to crescendo since the event. “Not only are Puerto Rican’s suffering from extortionately high energy costs averaging between 4–6 times higher than the U.S. mainland, their comparatively low GDP per capita under $20,000 compared to $52,000, makes the blackout a painful punctuation mark in an otherwise cruel joke,” said Dante Disparte, founder and CEO of risk and capital management firm Risk Cooperative in a scathing opinion piece published in the Huffington Post in October. “Puerto Rico’s blackout, like our other forgotten crises, remind us it is time to act.”

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)