3.4 billion hours.
That's the amount of energy that has leaked out Puerto Rico's mangled power grid ever since Hurricane Maria devastated the island last September.
The Category 4 storm, with 150-mph winds and 36 inches of rainfall that toppled 80% of the island's power lines and flooded its generators, has left the island in the longest and largest blackout in U.S. history.
It is also the second-longest blackout in world history.
The only event to have a bigger impact is Typhoon Haiyan, which pummeled the Philippines in 2013, where more than 6.1 billion hours of power was lost.
As of March 20, six months after the hurricane shredded the island, 7% of utility customers still couldn't turn on the lights, refrigerate food, or run water pumps.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Puerto Rico would need 50,000 utility poles and 6,500 miles of cable to restore its power system.
But it's starting to look like the island's power problems are far from over…
Puerto Rico Goes Dark
More than 200 days since the Hurricane Maria, an island-wide power outage rocked the island last week.
According to reports, the outage was caused by a bulldozer hitting a power line while trying to remove a collapsed transmission tower. The company responsible was D. Grimm, a subcontractor for Cobra Energy, which received a $200 million contract to repair Puerto Rico's devastated power grid.
The blackout came less than a week after a major outage that affected more than 800,000 Puerto Rican residents.
And another one in February that plunged much of San Juan and the northern part of the island into darkness.
And a blackout in November that hit the capital just hours after officials had celebrated restoring 50% of the island's power.
What's worse, the island remains incredibly vulnerable to future outages.
Exposed: Energy insider reveals the most important financial event of the decade – possibly even the century. Click here to learn about four potentially lucrative profit plays.
Even before Maria, the island was struggling with an aging electrical grid – a system that is 28 years older than the industry average in the rest of the United States.
"It'll happen again," Judith Enck, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator responsible for Puerto Rico said. "And likely at that scale."
For Puerto Rico's 3.3 million residents, the reconstruction of the power grid – bottlenecked by bureaucracy, outdated laws, and potentially corruption – has been unbearably slow.
The U.S. Department of Energy had been issuing weekly reports on grid reconstruction progress, but did not issue a report this week and did not respond to requests for comment.
However, Bruce Walker, an assistant secretary at the DOE, told Congress recently that the repair bill for Puerto Rico's grid could top $17.6 billion.
The blackout is already the worst in U.S. history, beating out Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
But with the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season rapidly approaching (June 1), many are worried if the "new" grid – once completed – will be able to hold up.
On Wednesday, the Army Corps of Engineers testified that the rickety grids have only been marginally improved since Maria hit.
"It is not the resilient grid that we all recognize is needed, but it's in better condition," Ray Alexander, an Army Corps director who led the grid reconstruction, told Congress.
Fact is, Puerto Rico's power grid battle began long before the devastating hurricane hit.
Puerto Rico's state-owned power company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has been in crisis for years, and its decaying electricity grid – with a fragile transmission scheme, little basic maintenance, extraordinary pollution, and out-of-date infrastructure – made the threat of blackouts common for millions of Puerto Ricans.
Furthermore, it speaks to the fragility of the overall U.S. grid as a whole.
America's Failing Power System
Right now, our electric grid is a brittle, interlinked system pieced together bit by bit over the past 125 years. In March alone, the U.S. experienced millions of power outages in the wake of four devastating Nor'easters, making it clear that the current grid is not only fragile and prone to failure, but also capable of completely disrupting our daily lives on a grand scale.
Made up of more than 3,200 utilities over 2.7 million miles of power lines, these power companies sell $400 billion worth of electricity each year. Regulators set the rates; utilities get guaranteed returns; investors get "sure-thing" dividends.
It's a spinning wheel that hasn't been updated much since Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb.
And as I've explained in Oil & Energy Investor in the past, that aging system is leading us one year closer to an energy crisis.
But a new breakthrough in energy grid technology is working to change all of that – and fast.
About the Author
Dr. Kent Moors is an internationally recognized expert in oil and natural gas policy, risk assessment, and emerging market economic development. He serves as an advisor to many U.S. governors and foreign governments. Kent details his latest global travels in his free Oil & Energy Investor e-letter. He makes specific investment recommendations in his newsletter, the Energy Advantage. For more active investors, he issues shorter-term trades in his Energy Inner Circle.