Amid ongoing heatwave, rolling blackouts continue

WAPA failure on St. John leads to call for protest today

CRUZ BAY — A major failure on the underground transmission line that carries power from St. Thomas left all 2,600 Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority customers on St. John without electricity throughout Thursday, as WAPA board members met for hours to discuss the utility’s grim situation.

“We can never get to a zero outage scenario,” WAPA CEO Andrew Smith said during a governing board meeting Thursday morning. “That would be impossible to achieve here.”

Board members discussed WAPA’s myriad of ongoing problems in public session for about two hours, before taking a break and going into executive session, where they met in private for six hours.

When they returned, board Secretary Juanita Young reported that, “we discussed legal matters and took action relative to legal matters related to Wartsila, Vitol, and a battery energy storage lease with VI Electron.”

Young did not provide any details about what action the board voted to take, but said all votes were unanimous.

WAPA has been locked in a dispute with Wartsila over payment for four new generators that have been sitting idle at the Randolph Harley plant on St. Thomas since 2021, and the company has refused to put them into service until WAPA agrees to change orders that increase costs. Negotiations have been ongoing, and it’s expected to take an additional six weeks to put the new units into service once an agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, WAPA has repeatedly fallen behind on deadlines to close a $145 million infrastructure buyout detail with propane supplier Vitol, after making an initial $45 million payment. In April, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said a deadline to pay the remaining $100 million had been extended, and said a new date was in negotiation.

Also in executive session, Young said the board voted to “table a personnel matter,” and she joined board members Maurice Muia, Cheryl Boynes-Jackson, and Hubert Turnbull in voting in the affirmative. Board Chairman Kyle Fleming voted no, and Lionel Selwood Jr. was unavailable for the vote, Young said.

During his executive director’s report, Smith identified several reasons why the utility has suffered numerous failures in the last two weeks, starting on May 8 when lightning struck the Harley power plant, causing a major failure in the St. Thomas-St. John district.

The following day, a safety disc activated, prompting evacuation of the power plant to determine “what did cause the loud noise,” Smith said, which was “not an explosion.”

The disc is a coupling that is “designed to fail” to prevent further damage to the equipment, and “it did not fail because of anything that actually happened in the generator, we think it’s just a time-of-use that the part just disintegrated,” and it has been replaced, Smith said.

Next was a propane supply valve leak on generator Unit 15 on May 16, and “obviously having a propane leak is a problem because it’s highly flammable,” Smith said.

While generating Unit 15 is dual-fuel and capable of running on diesel, supply quickly ran low and rotating blackouts were put in place in advance of a fuel shipment that arrived Saturday.

There was another emergency shutdown as a result of a gas detection leak Monday, and rolling blackouts continued across the district into the night.

Unit 23, the plant’s largest generator, tripped twice on Wednesday, causing another day of hourslong, repeated blackouts that prompted simmering resentment to boil over into calls for protest.

Thursday’s outages prompted online announcements of a planned demonstration on the public road in front of Mongoose Junction on St. John from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. today.

Board members and WAPA staff discussed possible ways to improve the situation, and Smith and interim COO Ashley Bryan explained that tree-trimming is a major issue, but WAPA doesn’t have the budget or staff to aggressively manage the problem.

In addition, “we desperately need to do major maintenance on our generators, they absolutely need to be opened up,” Smith said.

That cost typically runs $2 million per generator for routine maintenance, but WAPA’s generators have been neglected for so long that costs will likely be much higher, and will remove generating units from service, making it difficult to reach the 60 megawatts of power that peak load demands in the St. Thomas-St. John district, Smith said.

The maintenance is needed and “cash is a problem, so grants are a way for us to get away from that internal funding issue, and we’ve been pursuing grants like crazy,” Bryan said.

The plant has three major GE gas turbine generators, Unit 15, 27, and 23, which was the most-recently serviced generator that was last overhauled in 2017, and still has not been converted to run on the cheaper, more efficient liquid propane gas. Three smaller Wartsilas are in service but require frequent maintenance, and the four new Wartsilas are still idle amid the payment dispute.

Muia expressed concern about the lack of available backup generators.

“If we have a catastrophic failure, we’re screwed,” Muia said. “There’s no way to provide the capacity that’s necessary.”

“We’ve reached a point now where this is the worst that I have seen it, in my 30-plus years of having any relationship with the authority,” Turnbull said. “How bad is it?”

Smith said WAPA’s budget is stretched thin, with 70% spent on fuel, 7% to pay Seven Seas to produce drinking water — about $1.1 million per month, Smith said — and 4-5% spent on a fixed cost lease with Aggreko for generators on St. Croix. Overhead like payroll, benefits, and taxes is about 13% of operating costs, and debt service is another 13-15%, so essentially “there’s nothing left.”

WAPA is left to decide which maintenance projects to defer and what other costs can be shifted each month, and “we’re making those decisions out of that very small amount of money that’s left over,” Smith said.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has provided WAPA with more than $100 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies since 2022, and declared a State of Emergency on April 22 due to WAPA’s inability to maintain power generation on St. Croix.

Government House Communications Director Richard Motta Jr. has not responded to questions from The Daily News about what Bryan is currently doing to help solve the territory’s energy crisis.

The latest outage began at 6 a.m. Thursday, and WAPA provided an update explaining that, “a fault that was detected on the underground transmission line on St. Thomas. This line connects the East End substation to St. John via an underground line that runs from the National Guard Armory to the Great Bay Pond where it transitions to a submarine cable.”

Crews isolated the issue to the St. Thomas side and were working to locate the cause, and WAPA spokeswoman Shanell Petersen said in a phone call shortly before 5 p.m. that the fault had been located, “so a contractor is working on repairs.”

Petersen said she did not have an estimated time for restoration of service.

At that point, the outage had been ongoing for 11 hours, and St. John residents and business owners took to social media to vent their frustration at the seemingly endless power failures.

Many asked for advice on generator repair and purchases, and some said it’s becoming difficult to get prompt service from electricians and gas companies swamped with customers suddenly forced to live off-grid.

Social media was also flooded with notices from bars and restaurants about which were forced to close without power, and which were able to operate with generators.

Meanwhile, the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas is still suffering the effects of the ongoing power failures, and other infrastructure has been damaged by the surges.

The Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority announced that the Cancryn Pump Station was offline due to loss of electrical power and heavy rainfall, which “may lead to sewer system issues in the downtown area, potentially causing manhole overflows. VIWMA advises residents to avoid any standing water in the affected area.”

Wednesday’s heavy rainfall also made it more difficult for WAPA staff to identify and repair the transmission line to St. John, Smith said during Thursday’s board meeting.

And the recent heat wave has exacerbated the power plant’s problems, as generators are less able to dissipate heat, and power lines sag and stretch, Smith said.

He said stateside utilities plan for 99.9% reliability, with power failures restored in an hour or less, and more than enough generators to supply peak demand if some units fail or are taken offline for maintenance.

On the mainland, “everything is built to a triple redundancy,” Smith said. “We do not have that. We’re essentially, in some instances, a single redundancy utility.”