When Will Power Come Back To Puerto Rico? Depends Who You Ask These days, Puerto Rico's monumental power restoration effort involves helicopters dropping 100-foot towers into the mountains and a "big dance" of crews, equipment and expertise.
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When Will Power Come Back To Puerto Rico? Depends Who You Ask

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When Will Power Come Back To Puerto Rico? Depends Who You Ask

When Will Power Come Back To Puerto Rico? Depends Who You Ask

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Puerto Rico, the power situation remains bleak. In fact the outage there is now considered the largest and longest in U.S. history. This week, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, announced that half the island's generating capacity had been restored. But hours later, a major transmission line failed. Today Rossello asked the head of the Puerto Rico Power Authority to resign. It all leaves one question asked daily across the island. When will the power be back? NPR's Greg Allen reports that even a federal official in charge of that isn't sure.

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GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: They're a common sight now alongside roads in Puerto Rico - utility crews in bucket trucks working on power poles and lines.

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ALLEN: This crew is working along hilly and narrow streets in Rio Grande, a city east of San Juan. It's an area where Maria's 150-mile-per-hour winds snapped concrete power poles and left electrical lines dangling.

JOSE SANCHEZ: So right now they're fixing the higher-voltage line here on the distribution side.

ALLEN: Jose Sanchez heads local efforts to restore the power grid in Puerto Rico for the Army Corps of Engineers. He has several hundred contractors working for him. Sanchez is in charge of just half the power restoration effort here. The other half of the work being done elsewhere on the island is being managed by Puerto Rico's cash-strapped electric power company PREPA. PREPA has some 2,000 people working to restore power, including crews from Whitefish, the small Montana company whose contract was canceled recently amid controversy.

Sanchez says his toughest job is repairing high-voltage transmission lines that connect power plants in the south with population centers on Puerto Rico's northern coast. His crews are working to replace steel towers over 100 feet tall in mountainous areas.

SANCHEZ: One tower will be brought in by helicopter. Personnel will be dropped by helicopter and their equipment in order to work at the site.

ALLEN: Work goes slowly. Replacing a single tower, Sanchez says, can take up to a week. As for the question, when will the power come back on, it's one Sanchez is asked several times each day. And he's hesitant to give a direct answer.

SANCHEZ: I don't know, you know? I just want to say - I want to say a date, but I don't want to be, you know, giving false hopes to people.

ALLEN: Sanchez says 95 percent of the island should have power back by the end of February. But restoring power for that last 5 percent, many of them scattered customers in remote areas, he says may take much longer.

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ALLEN: One of the many places still waiting for power is La Perla. It's a poor community, and it has one of the most beautiful views on the entire island. It's where the video for the summer hit song "Despacito" was filmed, overlooking San Juan's rocky coastline. Although there's no power, La Perla has working washing machines in a community laundry area. They were installed recently for free by Sonnen, a German company that since last year has been selling solar-powered battery systems on the island. The washing machines run off a solar-powered micro-grid. Adam Gentner is with Sonnen.

ADAM GENTNER: The battery provides stable grid for whatever we're powering to operate on. And the solar then charges the batteries and operates the machinery during the day.

ALLEN: These kind of microgrid systems are becoming more popular here in Puerto Rico. They're not cheap. But on an island where even before the storm, power was expensive and unreliable, Gentner believes microgrids are part of the future.

GENTNER: There is now an opportunity going forward in Puerto Rico to build some resiliency into the grid with these microgrids, with solar energy and battery storage. And I think next time a big hurricane comes, we don't lose the power lines again and we're down for 60 days without power.

WILFREDO LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: One of the residents here, Wilfredo Lopez, says it's really hard, very, stressful to be without power for more than two months. A neighbor, Lucy Pacheco Rivera, is happy they finally have a place to do laundry.

LUCY PACHECO RIVERA: Somebody was telling me the washing machine is working. I say, what? But now I know it's here, so I go to my house and came back and check it, wash my clothes.

ALLEN: Utility trucks also appeared this week in La Perla, giving some people hope power will be back on soon. But Pacheco is skeptical. We're not sure what will get first here in Puerto Rico, she says - power or statehood. Greg Allen, NPR News, San Juan.

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