Puerto Rico's destructive atmospheric events, including hurricanes, have historically tested the limits of the island's infrastructure, particularly its electric transmission system. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and Maria, much of the damage only received emergency or temporary repairs to restore power to the island, leaving Puerto Rico's transmission and distribution infrastructure still significantly damaged.

The configuration of Puerto Rico’s electric system presents a unique challenge. Most of the system’s generation capacity is located in the southern part of the island, while the major load centers — metro San Juan, in particular — are in the north. Bridging this geographic division is a network of 230-kV and 115-kV transmission lines traversing the mountainous region from south to north. These lines have shown their vulnerability to the devastating impacts of major hurricanes, most notably Hurricane Maria.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has obligated billions of dollars for permanent work and has received approval for projects to reconstruct and harden Puerto Rico’s system for electrical transmission and distribution. Enhancing the resiliency of the transmission lines crossing mountainous terrain is key due to the accessibility to structures, especially isolated locations where helicopter support is needed. 

To navigate these challenges, industry professionals are turning to a data-driven and modeling approach. This method, rooted in sophisticated software tools, aims to optimize hardening decisions and designs. It seeks to maximize the effectiveness of limited funding while providing essential data to support FEMA’s cost-benefit analysis for allocating additional resources for hardening projects.

Understanding the Challenge

The transmission backbone of Puerto Rico, stretching across mountainous and densely forested areas, suffers from several vulnerabilities, including the lack of design documentation, exposure to severe weather conditions, and the presence of both aging infrastructure and financial constraints. These challenges affect the system’s reliability and resiliency. 

Reliability refers to the probability-based strength of the system's components in relation to their mechanical loading. Some items considered in design that may affect reliability include weather, load factors and hardware. The National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) has different strength factors applied to components like foundations and steel structures, cables and insulators, which have a more likely sequence of failure. This is why designing and building resiliency into transmission lines is essential because resiliency determines the system's ability to recover from disruption swiftly and effectively. Designing an electrical system that connects generation sites with load centers enhances reliability and meets industry standards. By adhering to codes and implementing mitigation measures, the system's vulnerability to future disasters could be significantly reduced.

Technology and Modern Tools as a Solution

An important part of the solution lies in incorporating reliability and resiliency practices and using tools to aid engineering designs. For example, PLS-CADD and PLS-TOWER are industry modeling tools that offer analysis information for every segment of lattice towers and monopole structures. In the case of lattice towers, once a structure is modeled, compression capacity and tension capacity can be calculated and accessed, providing concise information that empowers engineers to make informed decisions. Moreover, considerations like bolt capacities and the color-coded member usage visualization provide clear insights into potential weaknesses and areas of improvement.

The application of these tools has led to several key takeaways. First, reliable transmission lines are achievable and can be economically viable. Second, the crucial role of resilience in transmission lines cannot be overstated. Through the use of available tools, opportunities to reinforce existing transmission infrastructure can be evaluated and considered as an option to withstand future challenges. 

As Puerto Rico continues to navigate the aftermath of past hurricanes and prepare for future challenges, the adoption of a data-driven and modeling approach offers opportunities to reduce capital costs and minimize outage times. By leveraging advanced software tools and rigorous analysis, we can consider innovative and cost-effective solutions to extend the life of existing infrastructure as one of the tools toward a more reliable and resilient system. 


In the quest to harden Puerto Rico's transmission lines, it's clear that technology and data are invaluable. Through meticulous planning, analysis and execution, the island can turn vulnerability into strength. 

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José A. Benítez is a structural engineer in the Puerto Rico office of Burns & McDonnell. His five years of experience in the field includes the design and modeling of transmission lines, development of structure design, modeling of lattice towers, and analysis. Additionally, José has experience in the design of substations and security projects. Jose's work involves utilizing various design tools, including PLS-CADD & PLS TOWER.