Blackout hits northern Puerto Rico following fire, explosion

2018-02-12 09:21
Ambulances are seen at the entrance of an electric substation after an explosion and fire was reported and caused a blackout in parts of San Juan, on February 11, 2018. (Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP)

Ambulances are seen at the entrance of an electric substation after an explosion and fire was reported and caused a blackout in parts of San Juan, on February 11, 2018. (Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP)

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San Juan — An explosion and fire at an electric substation threw much of northern Puerto Rico into darkness late on Sunday in a setback for the US territory's efforts to fully restore power more than five months after Hurricane Maria started the longest blackout in US history.

The island's Electric Power Authority said several municipalities were without power, including parts of the capital, San Juan, but they were optimistic it could be restored within a day as they worked to repair a substation that controls voltage.

The blast illustrated the challenges of restoring a power grid that was already crumbling before it was devastated by the Category 4 hurricane.

In many cases, power workers are repairing equipment that should have long been replaced but remained online due to the power authority's yearslong financial crisis.

PREPA is worth roughly $4bn, carries $9bn in debt and has long been criticised for political patronage and inefficiency. It also struggled with frequent blackouts, including an island-wide outage in September 2016.

It was not immediately known what caused Sunday's fire, which was quickly extinguished. Officials said the explosion knocked two other substations offline and caused a total loss of 400 megawatts worth of generation.

"We are trying to restore that as quickly as possible," the company said.

No injuries reported

Heavy black smoke billowed from the substation as neighbours in the area described on social media seeing the sky turn orange following a loud explosion. 

San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz tweeted that no injuries had been reported and that power had been restored in some areas of the city.

The blackout comes as more than 400 000 power customers remain in the dark more than five months after Hurricane Maria. The storm destroyed two-thirds of the island's power distribution system and caused up to an estimated $94bn in damage.

Puerto Rico's governor announced last month that he plans to privatise the state-owned power company, which relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average. It would be the largest restructuring of a public entity in US history.

One week after his announcement, a federal control board overseeing the island's finances asked that a judge authorise a loan of up to $1.3bn so the power company can keep operating.

The board said the company could see an estimated $1.2bn loss in revenue in the first six months after Hurricane Maria.

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