Puerto Rico: Where Reggaeton Highlights Weak Energy Security

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The devastation caused by more frequent, stronger natural disasters illustrates the challenges to managing the restoration and modernization of energy infrastructure, particularly in Puerto Rico. Thousands of Puerto Ricans were left without power following the landfall of Hurricane Fiona in 2022. Two years prior, LUMA Energy was contracted to operate and modernize the island’s electricity grid. How do pop culture and post-storm recovery efforts illustrate the failure of the public-private partnership aimed to modernize Puerto Rico’s electricity grid? Pop culture coupled with a lagging electricity restoration response exacerbates the pervasiveness of power outages and electricity rate hikes.  The power of multimedia illustrates how pop culture may generate attention to prime government stakeholders ahead of a natural disaster, to not only discuss, but mitigate the problems at the root of the energy security issue. The continual undermining of energy security catalyzes government action to probe how funding allocations strengthen operations and advance the modernization of the island’s electricity grid.  

Ongoing, rolling blackouts, electricity rate hikes, paired with an island-wide blackout triggered by the landfall of Hurricane Fiona, illustrate the access gap to reliable and affordable energy in Puerto Rico. LUMA Energy, the private consortium awarded a fifteen-year, ten-billion-dollar contract by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), faces mounting pressure to report how government funds are modernizing the electricity grid. LUMA Energy’s lagging modernization efforts were further worsened by the corporation’s haphazard power restoration efforts, which left approximately 88,000 people without power, two weeks after Fiona’s landfall

The deterioration of Puerto Rico’s electricity grid infrastructure was decimated following Hurricane Maria. The death of approximately 3,000 people is linked to the category-four storm that made landfall in September 2017. The lack of electricity and the scarcity of fresh food, clean water, and medical care for a period of time are characteristics of a severe storm’s aftermath. Yet, many residents were left without power for up to one year after the storm. Skepticism arose after Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) hired LUMA Energy to rebuild the electricity infrastructure in 2020. PREPA is the state-run utility provider known to have neglected and mismanaged previous contracts.

Two years after LUMA Energy assumed control of operations, the electricity grid failed after the landfall of category-one storm Fiona in September 2022. The absence of transparency of LUMA Energy in power restoration efforts was evidenced by incomplete reporting during Fiona’s aftermath. The corporation’s unwillingness to disclose municipality-specific versus regional power restoration efforts is linked to resident and local government frustration as there were “sectors in each municipality [that] have not had [power] for 17 days,” which questions the credibility of LUMA Energy’s statement that claimed to have “re-energize[d] 95% of power customers more than two weeks after [Fiona’s landfall].” Infrastructure resilience investments funded by government funds merit increased transparency to track how current and future spending strengthens the infrastructure to withstand more frequent, devastating natural disasters.

The release of the documentary/music video titled El Apágon —The Blackout— by Latin-trap phenom, Bad Bunny draws worldwide attention as it “documents the island’s ongoing housing, electricity and corruption crises five years after Hurricane Maria.” Following the failure of the electricity grid after Hurricane Fiona, city mayors and residents organized both community-led power restoration brigades and protests outside of LUMA Energy offices given the company’s failure to restore power. The grid’s failure to withstand a category-one storm and the lag in power restoration efforts under the management of LUMA Energy raised concerns for legislators in Puerto Rico and the United States. Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives subpoenaed LUMA Energy President Wayne Stensby and other company officials to explain the grid’s failure and the company’s inability to restore power promptly. Following the subpoena by the Government of Puerto Rico, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce issued a letter to Stensby to report how federal funds are allocated to power restoration and investment in the modernization of the power grid. 

Energy security is not a guarantee in Puerto Rico under LUMA Energy as “customers endured rolling blackouts and outages that were not attributed to natural disasters” since the company became the island’s “exclusive electric transmission and distribution operator.” The release of the El Apágon documentary/music video has drawn the attention of about 13 million people to the ongoing conditions (i.e., rolling blackouts and electricity rate hikes) that effectively revive the sentiment of urgency resulting in the consideration and discussion of the energy security issue in the agenda ahead and after the storm’s landfall. The video elevates resident grievances by interspersing reporting on LUMA Energy’s systemic operation failures that hinder reliable and affordable access to energy. Furthermore, the documentary/music video format strengthens a paradigm shift that LUMA Energy is to blame for the failures as the sole entity contracted to operate and modernize the electricity grid. The release and broadcast of El Apágon framing LUMA Energy as the primary source of the energy security problem in Puerto Rico suggests that greater oversight or the eventual cancellation of the LUMA Energy contract is the solution to the problem.

The widespread power outages and electricity rate hikes are conditions of the privatization of Puerto Rico’s energy grid following the entrance of LUMA Energy. Said conditions evolved into problems and thus re-emerged on the agenda following the landfall of hurricane Fiona. The negative spillover effects (e.g., food spoilage, medical supplies refrigeration, etc.) of the island-wide blackout opened a window of opportunity for both Puerto Rican and U.S. legislators to probe into LUMA Energy’s activities and funding allocations while under contract. The testimony and documentation request by Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives and U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee members respectively demonstrate their willingness to act to mitigate energy insecurity through oversight and regulation of federal funds.

Political activism before and following a natural disaster illustrates the successful re-emergence of the energy security issue on the Puerto Rico and U.S. agenda. The framing of LUMA Energy as the primary culprit of Puerto Rico’s energy crisis effectively garners the attention of government stakeholders to discuss increased transparency in federal fund allocations to modernize the island’s electricity system. 

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