SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Federal officials said Monday that efforts to fully restore power to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria should get a boost with more work crews and more supplies arriving in the coming weeks.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that it is getting its own barge to ship items and that materials it requested several months ago have been manufactured and are finally on their way to the U.S. territory.
"We're doing everything we can to increase the (power company's) ability to do this as fast as possible for the people of Puerto Rico," said Col. John Lloyd, who is helping oversee power restoration efforts for the Corps of Engineers.
He told The Associated Press that officials over the weekend also discovered some needed materials in a previously overlooked warehouse owned by Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority.
The lack of some of those hard-to-find pieces had delayed energizing certain lines, according to the Corps of Engineers, which said the material included transformers, splices and hundreds of a key small piece no longer in stock elsewhere.
Puerto Rico's energy infrastructure is about 44 years old, compared with an average 18 years on the U.S. mainland, so a lot of parts damaged or destroyed by the hurricane are no longer available and have to be manufactured, Lloyd said.
It is unclear why power company officials had not provided the equipment previously. The Corps of Engineers said that the company's transmission division controls that warehouse and that it lacked transparency in inventory and accountability.
The power company rejected those allegations in a statement Monday evening and said it had previously provided other material in that warehouse to repair crews. Officials also said the material is bought through government bonds issued for capital improvement projects. so its distribution and use require strict oversight.
More than 40 percent of Puerto Rico's power customers remain in the dark nearly four months after the Category 4 storm hit the island, causing an estimated $95 billion in damage and killing dozens of people. Classes are resuming this week even though hundreds of public schools are still without power. Only 20 percent of intersections with stoplights have been powered.
Lloyd said crews are still assessing damage and his agency is still waiting for the shipment of hundreds of thousands of poles, transformers, fuses, towers, insulators, bolts and other pieces.
Of nearly 31,000 poles ordered, almost 12,000 have arrived. Of more than 6,000 transformers ordered, only 412 have arrived, but more than 630 were expected this week.
Lloyd said most of the island should have power by the end of February or early March, but estimated a complete restoration would take until May.
"Four months is a long time for people to be without power," he said. "We try to do this as fast as we possibly can."
An upcoming shipment of 1,250 miles of conductor wire and 6,000 poles made of wood, concrete and galvanized steel will coincide with the arrival of nearly 2,500 new workers over the next two weeks, officials said.
In addition, a federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico's finances amid an 11-year recession said Monday that it is considering four projects worth a total of $1.5 billion to help restore energy. The projects include a proposed $860 million waste-to-energy plant and a $47.5 million wind farm, both of which would be located on the island's north coast.
Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Monday that officials earlier had rejected the waste-to-energy plant and accused the company of trying to exploit post-hurricane conditions to get its project approved.
She said the project "is not clean or renewable or a major source of electricity."
Mark Green, project manager for Energy Answers, said that the company was pleased its project was chosen and that it was been subjected to a more than six-year rigorous environmental review. He rejected claims the project represented a threat to people's health or the environment.