Puerto Rico Gov Signs Bill to Privatize Power-Company Assets

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -

Puerto Rico’s governor signed a historic bill on Wednesday to privatize the U.S. territory’s troubled power company, in a move which many hope will help minimize power outages that have followed Hurricane Maria, and stabilize the production and distribution of energy amid an 11-year-old recession.

The bill allows Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority to sell its power generation plants, as the company faces more than $9 billion in public debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average. It also allows the government to create public-private partnerships for the transmission and distribution of power, and services including billing and meter-reading.

“We’re here to make transformational changes for Puerto Rico,” said Gov. Ricardo Rossello, adding that he believes the bill will help attract more investment. “It’s no secret that Puerto Rico’s economic development has remained stagnant in recent decades.”

Rossello said initial market studies have revealed “a lot” of interest in taking over the generation and distribution of power in Puerto Rico. But contracts will not be awarded anytime soon. Legislators now have 180 days to approve another measure to establish a public energy policy and regulatory framework that Puerto Rico’s Energy Commission will use as a guide to award contracts.

Puerto Rico Rep. Victor Pares said privatizing certain assets will help boost Puerto Rico’s economy and create a more resilient power grid.

“This is possibly the most important project in decades,” said Pares, president of the House Commission for Economic Development, Planning, Telecommunications, Public-Private Partnerships and Energy.

However, those who oppose privatizing the power company’s assets say it doesn’t guarantee a more widespread use of renewable energy or cheaper power bills on an island where the cost is nearly twice the average of the U.S. mainland.

“This measure does not contain any guarantee of lower rates as promised by the government,” Freddyson Martinez, vice president of a union that represents power company workers, said in a phone interview.

Rep. Denis Marquez, a member of Puerto Rico’s Independence Party, voted against the measure, and told The Associated Press that the company should be overhauled but remain in government hands.

“Energy is a human right,” he said, adding that he believes Puerto Ricans will be hit with higher power bills.

The Electric Power Authority currently serves 1.47 million customers, with more than 4,300 of them still without power, nine months after the Category 4 storm hit Puerto Rico and destroyed up to 75 percent of distribution lines, causing the longest blackout in U.S. history. Crews are still repairing lines and installing new power poles, as U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity works with Puerto Rico’s power company to start strengthening the grid, even as the new Atlantic hurricane season has started.

Rossello stressed that the grid should be modernized.

“If we leave it like it is, it will fall apart with the slightest wind,” he said.