Puerto Ricans Fight a Pitched Battle for Island’s Electric Grid After LUMA Takeover

Jun 3, 2021
9:58 AM

In this May 16, 2018 file photo, an electric power pole leans over the road in the Piedra Blanca area of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans hit the streets to protest the contract signed by the government with LUMA Energy that privatizes the island’s electrical grid for the next 15 years and may increase electric rates by 10 cents/kWh.

In June of 2020, former Governor Wanda Vazquez Garced and the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (AEE) signed a contract with LUMA Energy worth $1.3 billion. This contract went into effect June 1, 2021, and has brought with it a wave of protests and strike threats from the Electric Industry Workers Union (UTIER) and over a dozen workers unions that are attempting to force the government to cancel the contract. Meanwhile, 19,000 customers remain without power across the island.

LUMA Energy, a consortium of Quanta Services Inc. and Atco Ltd., took over the operation and management of the AEE electrical lines on June 1. The AEE formerly operated one of the largest public power utilities in all the United States and its territories, serving over 1.5 million customers in Puerto Rico.

In the early hours of the morning on June 1, protesters began setting up encampments in front of the gates of the newly christened LUMA Energy warehouses and facilities in a bid to not let the workers access their tools. The largest of these encampments is currently at the Palo Seco Power Plant in Toa Baja. When questioned, protesters said they were planning on occupying these encampments for four days until they were supposed to show up to the workstations they had been re-assigned to by the contract. Only 1,100 thousand former AEE employees transitioned to LUMA, leaving the rest to work in AEE electricity generation or central government.

In Ponce, three workers were arrested after they allegedly entered LUMA facilities, locked themselves in two work trucks and attempted to leave in them.

“At this point, LUMA has not filed charges, but LUMA certainly will, yes, when we find acts of sabotage or illegal transfer of property that we are responsible for protecting,” LUMA President Wayne Stensby told journalists.

Later that day, in front of the former AEE headquarters in San Juan, a group of unions —including the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU), the General Union of Workers (UGT), the Broad Front of Truckers (FAC) and the UTIER— publicly claimed that they would call for a national strike that would “paralyze the country” if the government did not cancel their contract with LUMA Energy. They also said that they would take to the streets, similar to how they mobilized during the summer of 2019, when mass protests forced former Governor Pedro Rosselló to resign.

In an interview with Radio Isla on Wednesday, June 2, APPU President Angel Rodriguez confirmed that the unions are “prepared for more than two weeks” of protests if the government did not rescind the contract with LUMA Energy.

Throughout the island, roughly 19,000 new LUMA —formerly AEE— customers have been without power for more than a week. As of Thursday morning, this is a screengrab of the current outage map.

Customers who do have access to electricity have found LUMA’s website unstable and prone to crashes. Those who were able to log into the website have found that the amount they owe is significantly higher than they had formerly paid to the AEE. Others have found that they have new unpaid fees even though their bills had been completely paid off.

Customers who do have access to electricity have found working with LUMA’s new website and management system unstable and prone to crashes. Those who were able to access the site have found that the amount owed is markedly higher than what they paid under the AEE and that they have unpaid fees even though their account was completely paid.

In early May, the Puerto Rico House of Representatives unanimously voted against approving a $750 million payout to LUMA Energy to prevent the contract from going into effect. The Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico (FOMBPR), who has continuously pushed for the privatization of many of the island’s public utilities since it was created in 2016 by former President Barack Obama under the PROMESA Act, overruled them and approved the payout the day after. They argued that the $750 million were not a payout to LUMA Energy but a requisite part of the operation and maintenance of the AEE.

When the contract was originally signed it was met with widespread dismay from many sectors of the island, especially considering some of the initial clauses found in the contract. One such clause stated that the company could leave the island if a hurricane hit the island. Hurricane Maria in 2017 decimated the island’s electrical grid, partly causing it to be sold off and privatized. They also asked for a liability waiver that would free them of any legal trouble incurred from “ordinary negligence, gross negligence and even willful misconduct.” This waiver was shot down by the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (NEPR), who gave them the same liability waiver previously held by the AEE.

On Wednesday, June 2, community leaders from public housing projects declared they would also “take to the streets” if the contract was not rescinded because they would be the ones most affected by any increase in electrical rates.

Throughout the protests, everybody who has spoken to Latino Rebels and who opposes the contract has repeated the same sentiment, that the government of Puerto Rico should “expect resistance.”

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Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is a freelance journalist, mostly focused on civil unrest, extremism, and political corruption. He can be found on Twitter @Vaquero2XL.