The Explosion That Left Half of Puerto Rico in Darkness

Jun 11, 2021
5:20 PM

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico  — On Thursday afternoon, the Monacillos electric substation in San Juan was engulfed in flames and clouds of smoke after an explosion, leaving hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans without electricity.

An explosion and subsequent fire engulfed the substation at approximately 6:10 pm. The incident caused a massive island-wide blackout that left 900,000 customers without electricity. This amount has been slowly decreasing since the explosion was first reported. LUMA Energy, which took over distribution and maintenance of the island’s electrical grid from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (AEE, in Spanish) on June 1, 2021, claims that there are still 19,000 clients without electricity as of Friday afternoon.

A similar explosion occurred at the same substation on February 11, when the island’s electrical grid was still under control of the Rico Electric Power Authority (AEE). Thes subsequent blackout lasted up to 14 days for some customers and cost between $100,000 and $150,000 to repair.

At a Friday press conference, LUMA Energy CEO Wayne Stensby claimed that the company projected that they would be able to restore electricity to remaining customers by 6 p.m. Friday night, adding that a mobile substation had been brought in to aid in the restoring of electricity and that the cause of the explosion and fire had not been identified.

Earlier on Thursday, LUMA Energy claimed that its website was the target of a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack that crashed their servers and made the website unusable to visitors. There has been no connection found between the cyberattack and the Monacillos explosion. Before the cyberattack, many customers claimed the website was already buggy and unstable, making it hard for them to access the billing system and outage maps.

After the blackout, many people began to claim that the explosion was a deliberate act of sabotage by the Electric Industry Union Workers (UTIER, in Spanish). Communications Coordinator for the Republican Party of Puerto Rico Kevin Romero-Diaz called the incident an act of “domestic terrorism.”

UTIER, which is mostly composed of former AEE employees, has been protesting the privatization of the island’s electrical grid since the government of Puerto Rico signed the contract with LUMA Energy in 2018. UTIER President Angel Figueroa Jaramillo has affirmed that there was no “sabotage or vandalism” at the Monacillos substation.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi claimed that both state and federal law enforcement authorities were looking into the situation.

He also said that “whoever is responsible for the situation will have to respond to the people of Puerto Rico.”

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez said that previous blackouts, the Monacillos explosion, and the subsequent island-wide blackout “do not seem to be isolated incidents.”

The FBI division in San Juan is “currently evaluating the situation.”

Later in the day, LUMA executives confirmed that only LUMA employees had access to the location where the explosion started and that the substation retained the same security measure it had under the AEE.

Current AEE Director Efran Paredes considers the incident “an accidental breakdown.

An anonymous ex AEE lineman claimed that the flaws reported by LUMA are “common failures in Puerto Rico” and that LUMA “has not been able to solve much because they have few employees and don’t have adequate knowledge of the system.”

Puerto Rico’s Senate was in session when the blackout occurred. The moment the senate chambers were submerged in darkness, one member sarcastically screamed, “Thank you, LUMA!”

Stensby said he does not expect an explosion like Thursday’s to happen often, saying, “I hope yesterday was not normal. This cannot be normal.”

Interestingly, on LUMA PR’s careers webpage, it displays the company is still hiring a variety of emergency preparedness personnel. The highest of these positions, the “Emergency Response Innovation Coordinator” whose job responsibilities include “implementing of all aspects of Major Outage Restoration Annex for LUMA.”

Kristian Bob, a Puerto Rican entertainer known for creating songs based around the peculiarities of life on the island, to his Twitter a few hours after it happened.

This blackout comes amid a series of issues many Puerto Ricans have had with LUMA Energy. On June 4, LUMA confirmed their head of customer service for the island, Sandy Love, does not speak Spanish. Less than 20 percent of Puerto Ricans speak English. Several LUMA employees have begun taking Spanish lessons, according to a company spokeswoman.

Before the explosion, thousands of Puerto Ricans had already been experiencing a lack of electricity for more than a week. Two days before the blackout, there were approximately 2,765 customers without electricity on the island. In Aguadilla, a woman and her family were briefly trapped in their home after live electric cables fell around their house.

These cables remained on the ground for three days after they had called LUMA customer service for help. The problem was eventually fixed by LORD Construction employees, who are currently subcontracted by LUMA.

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.


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