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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Company from Whitefish, Montana, helping put Puerto Rican power grid back on line

Linemen working for Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings take off in a helicopter in Puerto Rico recently. (Whitefish Energy)

A northwest Montana company is playing a key role in turning the lights back on in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Whitefish Energy Holdings LLC, of Whitefish, signed a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to repair and rebuild electrical transmission infrastructure on the island.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, with 155 mph winds, destroying much of the U.S. territory’s infrastructure. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that 80 percent of the island’s electrical grid was affected.

Whitefish Energy, is among many companies contracted by the PREPA, Puerto Rican government and the federal government to restore power to the island. The company’s contract with PREPA is to rebuild 100 miles of transmission lines. The Army Corps of Engineers says the island has 2,400 miles of transmission lines.

“Our initial scope of work was restringing 100 miles of transmission lines,” Whitefish Energy spokesman Chris Chiames said. “Once we are on the island and working with PREPA and other government officials, there certainly will be other tasks that we are given and we take on.”

In a news release issued Thursday, the power utility construction and management company, said its workers have already repaired several miles of key transmission and distribution lines, bringing the team within days of restoring power to multiple Puerto Rico towns and communities.

The first group of Whitefish Energy employees started work on the island upon their arrival Sept. 26. As of Thursday, Whitefish Energy had 300 employees and subcontractors temporarily relocated in Puerto Rico. The company expects to have a total of 1,000 people to be working on restoring power.

While the company’s founder and CEO, Andy Techmanski, is from Montana, many of the linemen working for Whitefish Energy in Puerto Rico come from locations across the U.S.. The Jacksonville Florida Electric Authority and the New York Power Authority are providing utility workers for Whitefish Energy, Chiames said.

Currently, Whitefish Energy is working to get more equipment on the island. Chiames said the company, founded in 2015, has expertise in working in rural and rugged areas. Much of the work it will do requires helicopters and 100-foot ladders.

“That kind of specialty work is what Andy Techmanski has focused on for much of his career, and is the specialty around which Whitefish was founded and the work they are pursuing,” Chiames said.

A number of videos of electricians being dropped onto transmission towers from helicopters have been uploaded onto Whitefish Energy’s Facebook page.

While Whitefish may be a relatively new and smaller company, Chiames said, it started discussions with PREPA about working in the territory’s rough terrain before Hurricane Maria hit. As a result, it was one of the first company’s contacted to help with power restoration.

Some companies may have been wary of working with PREPA because the public utility filed for bankruptcy in July with $9 billion of debt.

“(Other power companies) are all afraid of the question of how are we going to get paid, Whitefish Energy was the company that actually made the leap of faith and was able to get over here,” Techmanski told Bloomberg News on Oct. 13.

Whitefish Energy is not concerned about PREPA’s financial history, Chiames said.

“We took on the work under the full assumption that we would be paid for it,” he said. “As a disaster recovery plan is put in place, there is a pretty strong history of federal and local governments stepping up to make payment for the rebuilding.”