Puerto Rico seeks to break power company monopoly, lower electric bills

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The president of Puerto Rico’s Senate presented 10 measures on Wednesday he said will help break the monopoly of the largest power company in any U.S. jurisdiction and lead to cheaper electric bills.

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia’s announcement comes amid mounting anger in the U.S. territory over an ongoing economic crisis and power bills that are on average more than twice those on the U.S. mainland.

“It has turned into an extremely inefficient and extremely expensive company,” he said. “This is over. Puerto Rico cannot continue to be held hostage by a single company that forces it to pay 27 cents per kilowatt hour.”

The state Electric Energy Authority has long controlled the production, generation and regulation of power in Puerto Rico. It also faces numerous corruption allegations, with legislators noting the agency operates with little oversight, regulation and transparency.

Last month, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla announced he would overhaul the company and create a public service commission to regulate the agency and oversee its contracts, operations and expenses.

Bhatia said he plans to meet with Garcia to talk about the bills he submitted, saying they both are working toward the same goals.

Some of Bhatia’s measures would open the market and allow the government to buy power from other companies, as well as help pay off the agency’s $10 billion debt.

“It is worth less than what it owes,” Bhatia said of the utility.

The measures also promise to cut power bills nearly in half by 2016, and would force the power agency to first submit its rates to a public service commission for approval. Customers the first time would be able to file lawsuits if the agency does not comply with public policy.

The president of Puerto Rico’s Manufacturers Association said the proposal would help open the industry up to competition and boost the island’s economy.

“Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic growth can only be achieved if the cost of operating business here goes down,” Waleska Rivera said.

Juan Alicea Flores, executive director of the Electric Energy Authority, said he welcomed the proposals, noting the agency is already trying to stabilize its finances and improve customer service, among other things.

Puerto Rico currently depends on oil to generate nearly 70 per cent of its power, and Bhatia said the power company generates up to 80 per cent in excess power, passing along that cost to consumers. Other companies generate an average of 15 to 20 per cent in excess power, he said.

“We are slaves to petroleum,” he said.

The governor has approved several measures to help reduce the island’s reliance on oil, and he aims to increase the amount of renewable energy that Puerto Rico generates from 1 per cent of its needs to 6 per cent by late 2014.

Puerto Rico already is home to the Caribbean’s largest solar energy project, with more than 101,000 solar panels, and the region’s biggest wind farm, with 44 turbines.