A Whitefish-based energy outfit is playing a key role in restoring power on the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico, a windfall for the relatively untested Montana company, whose CEO said it is well-equipped for such a massive undertaking in the rural and rugged region.
Officials with Whitefish Energy Holdings say the company’s experience and expertise working in the Mountain West, and CEO Andy Techmanski’s 20 years rebuilding transmission lines here, furnishes crews with a skillset uniquely tailored to meet the challenges of repairing and reconstructing electrical transmission infrastructure on the island’s mountainous terrain, which Hurricane Maria rolled across last month, killing at least 49 people and leaving the majority of the island without power and in the dark.
Last month, the company signed a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to repair and rebuild 100 miles of transmission lines on the western portion of the island, and hopes to start turning some of the lights back on in the coming days.
Chris Chiames, a spokesman for the company, said Whitefish Energy crews have been on the ground since Sept. 26, and the firm currently has 265 workers and contractors in Puerto Rico, with the number growing daily.
“We hope to have a crew of 1,000 to complete the work we have been asked to do on the island, as well as take on any other assignments that will support the restoration of power to all parts of Puerto Rico,” he said.
Whitefish Energy is one of numerous companies contracted by PREPA, as well as the Puerto Rican government and the federal government, to restore power to the island. Roughly 80 percent of its electrical grid was impacted by the storm, and the Army Corps of Engineers estimates the island has 2,400 miles of transmission lines.
Prior to the Hurricane Maria Sept. 20 landfall, Chiames said the company had already been in talks with PREPA about Whitefish Energy’s capabilities.
“When Maria hit, we called PREPA — they knew our experience in mountainous regions because we had discussed our work previously,” he said. “We were able to fly into San Juan and help PREPA devise a plan to restore the grid in the mountains particularly, and do so quickly. And we were put to work.”
Formed in 2015 by Techmanski, Whitefish Energy began eying the former site of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company as a potential campus to build a transformer manufacturing plant, in partnership with Brazil-based Comtrafo S.A., a leading transformer manufacturing firm. At the time, Techmanski estimated the company would need to generate $15 million to $20 million in backorders with regional utilities in order to justify the manufacturing center, which so far has not panned out.
The contract with Puerto Rico will keep the company busy for the foreseeable future, Chiames said.
Other contractors working in Puerto Rico include Fluor Corp., which was awarded a $336.2 million contract from the Army Corps of Engineers for debris removal and power restoration, and Weston Solutions, which is providing two generators to stabilize power in the capital for $35 million.
When Whitefish Energy first set to work, Chiames said the situation in Puerto Rico was dire.
“There wasn’t power, communications and even water in some areas, and PREPA needed help getting the right people on the ground with the right expertise,” he said. “We have that expertise, and not everyone in the industry does.”
Addressing concerns over its contract with PREPA, the public utility company known for its rolling blackouts and recent bankruptcy, Chiames said company officials are not concerned about financial issues.
“This work has to get done one way or the other, and we have quickly developed a great deal of trust with PREPA executives and other officials in Puerto Rico,” he said. “The entire Whitefish team views our work as a mission, not a job.”
In a press release, company officials said the teams have already repaired several miles of critical transmission and distribution lines, and are days away from restoring power to multiple communities and towns.
Still, it will be months before the work is complete.
The work requires heavy trucks and excavation equipment, specialty trucks with massive extension ladders and helicopters, which use hoist lines to airlift crewmembers to remote sites.
“We often have to clear roads and access to the towers before we can even begin the repairs. In some cases, the only way to access the towers is to airlift our crews in,” Chiames said. “The damage to the power grid is extensive. In many cases, our crews are the first to even access some of the sites, so it’s not just a task of restoring poles and wires. We have to assess the situation and build a work plan and then start the work. We specialize in this kind of work and terrain, so we are fully prepared and equipped to do that. But people need to understand this is not like repairing electrical wires in a neighborhood or urban environment.”
Gov. Ricardo Rossello has set an ambitious goal of bringing 95 percent of the island back online by the end of December, and Chiames said Whitefish Energy is committed to completing its work as quickly as possible to support the objective and be available for any other work it can assist on.
“It would shock most Americans to see firsthand the devastation and the conditions that many of our fellow citizens of Puerto Rico are living under,” he added. “While the media has been detailing the lack of electricity, clean water, access to medical care and other basic necessities, to see it firsthand is quite moving.”