Conflict & Justice

Tiny Montana firm hired to rebuild Puerto Rico's power grid

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A member of the Puerto Rican National Guard dodges downed power cables as he hands out food and water to a neighborhood following Hurricane Maria in Ceiba.

Credit:

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, nearly 80 percent of the island remains without power.

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Typically, power companies rely on “mutual aid” agreements with other utilities following natural disasters — both Texas and Florida recently activated those agreements to help residents get power back.

But the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, has opted out and hired a tiny contracting firm from Montana instead.

“PREPA couldn't afford it,” says David Ferris, a reporter for E&E News. The agency is $9 billion in debt, and mutual aid agreements are expensive to repay.

Whitefish Energy saw an opening and signed a $300 million contract with PREPA last week. The contract didn't require PREPA to pay any costs upfront. 

“There were other companies offering to do the work,” says Ferris "but because of PREPA’s perilous financial situation, those other parties wouldn’t necessarily just jump in. But Whitefish was ready to.”

Whitefish is responsible for rebuilding “a major spine of the transmission system that will connect the southern part of the island, where most of the power plants are, to the northern part of the island where the capital is and where most of the power users are,” says Ferris.

PREPA’s decision to hire Whitefish Energy is unusual, and drawing some scrutiny. The for-profit company had just two full-time employees when Hurricane Maria made landfall, and is based in US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown in Montana.

“You have a small, untested power company going in to help a desperate, bankrupt utility,” says Ferris. “We simply don't know what that's going to look like or how long it's going to take.”

To hear more from David Ferris about Whitefish Energy listen above.