Explosion, fire at substation causes more blackout in Puerto Rico

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The logo of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is seen in Dorado, Puerto Rico January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Portions of northern Puerto Rico were hit by a blackout following an explosion and fire at an electric substation.

The explosion, which was caused by a mechanical failure, occurred at around 9 p.m. at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) substation in Monacillo, located on the outskirts of the capital city, San Juan.

The blackout affected the heavily populated northern region of the island, including parts of San Juan, Trujillo Alto, Guaynabo, Carolina, Caguas, and Juncos.

The fire that resulted from the explosion has been put under control. “It appears fire has almost totally been extinguished and the cooling phase is beginning,” said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz in a Twitter update. “No injured reported.”

According to PREPA, 400 megawatts of power generation had been lost, but power could be restored to the affected areas soon, as they are working to repair a substation that controls the voltage.

The blackout is a setback to Puerto Rico’s ongoing effort to completely restore power to the island following last year’s Category 4 Hurricane Maria, which caused massive damage to the territory’s power grid. The storm destroyed two-thirds of the island’s power distribution system.

The territory’s struggle to regain electricity constitutes the longest blackout in U.S. history. More than five months after the Hurricane, more than 400,000 PREPA customers still do not have power.

The explosion also demonstrates the challenges of restoring Puerto Rico’s power grid, which was already crumbling even before it was hit by Hurricane Maria. The state-owned PREPA relies on infrastructure that is almost three times older than today’s industry average. Workers are now repairing equipment that should have been replaced years ago but remained operational because of PREPA’s longstanding financial crisis.

The agency is worth around $4 billion, and carries a debt of $9 billion. It has been criticized for its inefficiency and frequent blackouts. Last month, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to privatize the company, a move that could become the largest restructuring of a public entity in U.S. history.