Privatization concerns grow as PREPA seeks $1.3B loan

AP News
Posted: Jan 29, 2018 6:08 PM
Privatization concerns grow as PREPA seeks $1.3B loan

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Government officials on Monday denied claims they plan to eliminate the Energy Commission that regulates Puerto Rico's power company amid plans to privatize the utility, which they have warned will run out of funds by mid-February.

The denial came a day after a federal control board overseeing the island's finances requested that a judge authorize a loan of up to $1.3 billion to Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority so it can keep operating. The board said the power company could see an estimated $1.2 billion loss in revenue in the first six months after Hurricane Maria.

Jose Roman, president of the Energy Commission, urged the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rossello to keep the body or create a new regulatory entity, saying strong oversight will be needed if the utility is privatized.

"The company still represents a challenge," he said, adding that the commission will work together with the government on privatization plans.

Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario said there is no plan to eliminate the commission, but rather to combine it with two other regulatory bodies as part of a plan to consolidate government agencies and save money amid an 11-year-old recession. He said the Energy Commission is to be fused with the Telecommunications Regulatory Board and the Public Service Commission.

However, Rosario also accused the Energy Commission of being ineffective and of wasting taxpayers' money. "Electricity in Puerto Rico remains expensive and harmful to the environment, and the Electric Power Authority remains an inefficient monopoly," he said.

The power company has seen its cash balance fall to $187 million more than four months after Hurricane Maria hit, and it has been able to bill only 35 percent to 40 percent of its customers, according to a motion that the federal control board filed overnight Saturday.

The board is seeking an initial $550 million loan to help the utility pay workers, finance maintenance projects and buy supplies and fuel, among other things, as crews continue to restore electricity to nearly a half million power customers still in the dark.

Legislators recently approved a measure that would authorize the island's government to issue that loan, but it requires a judge's approval because the power company with a $9 billion debt is undergoing a bankruptcy-like process.

The board warned that action is needed soon to help avoid a shutdown of the power company's operations.

"The shutdown would have a cascading effect on infrastructure and services that rely on electric power to operate, plunge homes and businesses across the island into darkness, impair residents in need of power for medical operations, dialysis, and other patient needs, and impair Puerto Rico's fragile economy," the board stated in its motion.