Puerto Rico to privatize island's troubled power company

Puerto Rico’s governor announced Monday that he is privatizing the island’s government-owned power company following decades of mismanagement, corruption and blackouts.

The surprise announcement comes as nearly 30 percent of power customers in the U.S. territory remain in the dark more than four months after Hurricane Maria.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, was founded in 1979 as a public utility run by appointees of the island’s governor. It has long been criticized for political patronage, corruption and inefficiency, charges that took on urgency in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Its director was forced out after the utility failed to immediately call for help from its mainland counterparts after the storm and it granted a power-restoration contract to a little-known company that it was forced to rescind. Most recently, PREPA was blamed for the failure to distribute badly needed parts found in one of its warehouses even as repairs went undone for lack of supplies.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said privatization will bring more affordable rates and better service to consumers as well as help attract more business to an island mired in an 11-year-old recession.

“One of the greatest obstacles that has halted our opportunities for economic development is the deficient and obsolete system of generation and distribution of energy,” he said.

Rossello noted Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority is operating with infrastructure that is nearly 30 years older than the industry average. In addition, it has lost 30 percent of its employees in the last five years, 86 percent of whom were assigned to maintenance, he said.

The governor said that over the past decade, overall demand for energy in Puerto Rico has dropped nearly 20 percent, with a nearly 50 percent fall in the industrial sector.

In the next couple of days, government officials will start a process to sell the assets of the power company, which is roughly $9 billion in debt and has struggled with blackouts, including an islandwide one that occurred in September 2016.