The majority of Puerto Rico‘s 3.4 million residents still lack electricity in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Now, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is looking to a two-year-old Montana-based company, Whitefish Energy, to help them switch the power back on. But some people are wondering why PREPA would sign the $300 million contract, the largest issued yet, with a company that only had two full-time employees when Hurricane Maria hit the island.
Whitefish Energy has been tasked with repairing and reconstructing electrical infrastructure in Puerto Rico. The company said this week they have 280 workers laboring now, and that they’re close to finishing work that will provide power to key industrial facilities that will help get the local economy going again.
PREPA signed the contract with Whitefish instead of activating mutual aid agreements – which have aided United States utilities in recovering after natural disasters – with other utilities. As Puerto Rico is bankrupt, many people are wondering why they’d hire a company instead of turning to the mutual aid network. Former Energy Department senior official Susan Tierney told The Washington Post, “The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish. I’m scratching my head wondering how it all adds up.”
PREPA executive director Ricardo Ramos told reporters Whitefish was the first firm “available to arrive and they were the ones that first accepted terms and conditions for PREPA.”
Whitefish is based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown, but Zinke’s office said he didn’t play a role in the Puerto Rico contract. Whitefish had landed a $1.3 million federal contract just before Hurricane Maria to replace and upgrade parts of an Arizona transmission line 4.8 miles long in 11 months. There are 2,400 miles of transmission lines in Puerto Rico, where an estimated 80 percent of the grid has been harmed.
Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló recently said 95 percent of power would be on by Christmas. Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski seems to disagree, saying, “I don’t know where he got that and what information he was using. Without doing a full assessment countrywide, I couldn’t fathom how many months, if it’s going to be two months, three months, five months.”