The three-and-a-half years since Hugo Hodge took over the helm of the V.I. Water And Power Authority have not been the easiest of economic times for the territory or the world.
While many across St. John and the Virgin Islands continue to struggle with the rising cost of every day needs, there are few targets more battered in local media than the public utility WAPA with its reliance on oil, increasing LEAC rates and high KW cost.
“The toughest part of my job is the fact that everything seems to be personal in our culture,” said WAPA executive director Hodge. “It’s tough to keep employees motivated when they are being told such negative things in print. It’s a little unfair how you get rated when there are so many thresholds that have to be looked at.”
When Hodge started at WAPA in January 2008, the price of oil was $92 a barrel and it spiked to $100 his second week.
“That changes the way you have to go about addressing plans,” said the WAPA executive director. “Plus just the nature of the island system is very difficult. There is no neighboring utility to call when you have a problem — it’s just your own efforts.”
Lately WAPA’s efforts and especially Hodge’s time has been largely dedicated to finding ways of reducing the territory’s reliance on oil and thereby lowering those monthly utility bills.
Connecting to the power grid of Puerto Rico has been one of the major initiatives Hodge’s has been exploring since he started with WAPA.
“The way it first started was I heard about Puerto Rico’s natural gas plan which was going to reduce their energy costs by 40 percent,” said Hodge. “Being that we need energy at a lower cost than fuel oil and natural gas has lower emissions, we talked about maybe extending their pipe line since it’s only about 45 miles away.”
With a change in administration in Puerto Rico in 2009, the planned natural gas pipe line to Farajardo was scrapped. Talks then switched to connecting the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico via a submarine cable, a plan which continues to gain momentum.
“A submarine cable first and foremost gives us access to lower cost energy from the variety of fuel sources available in Puerto Rico,” said Hodge. “It also gives us some redundancy and reliability and mitigation in the event of a natural disaster.”
WAPA recently received feasibility studies about the cable which determined the project could proceed, Hodge explained.
“All of the possibilities between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico and St. Thomas and the BVIs came back feasible and the number was well lower than we thought it was going to be,” he said.
Hodge met with federal officials in Washington, D.C. about three weeks ago to discuss funding for the next phase of the project, the environmental feasibility study which is expected to take about a year, he explained.
“That is the longest-term item we have left to complete,” Hodge said. “Once the feasibility study is complete then the construction of the cable will take about nine months as well, but you actually lay the cable in 60 days. So in all we’re looking at about two to three years from now.”
In addition to the lack of neighboring utilities to call up on for help, the island infrastructure also makes mistakes extremely costly, explained Hodge.
“When you have a system as small as ours you can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said. “You have to get the analysis correct. Mistakes are just more critical in this infrastructure.”
Governor John deJongh’s Administration has set a goal of reducing the territory’s dependence on oil by 60 percent by 2025 and WAPA has been working towards that goal by exploring ways of getting energy from the sun and the wind, explained Hodge.
“We have started a project to generate 10 megawatts of solar power,” said the WAPA executive director. “We received 27 bids which is a large amount and more than we expected. Right now we’re in the process of going through those bids to confirm who has met the qualifications and we’ll get a short list complied around October 25.”
“Some really good bids came and we could expect to see this project completed within a year,” said Hodge. “We’ll fully vet these proposals to get the best result for the consumer. We’re looking at the technology proposed, the type of solar panels and the ability to bring the project to fruition.”
Each megawatt of solar energy requires about three to five acres of land to accommodate the panels needed, according to Hodge. WAPA has identified about 15 acres on St. Croix for the project and is looking for additional land on St. Thomas and is even considering some rooftop space, Hodge explained.
WAPA is also exploring ways to harness wind energy to generate power for the territory. The utility recently secured an anemometer to measure wind speed, which is the first step in the process, explained Hodge.
“All vendors require about 12 months of data,” he said. “But once we get about six months of data, we’ll get the RFPs out and start looking at our options. We’re very excited about the wind opportunities in places like Bovoni and along the south shore on St. Thomas and on St. Croix there are areas we know should have good wind too.”
WAPA has also been working to reduce line loss, replace streetlights with LED lights and bury cables underground in order to get the most reliable system under the current conditions, Hodge added.
WAPA’s executive director clearly sees the struggles ahead for both the utility and the community it serves. While admitting that there is no magic wand for the territory’s high energy costs, Hodge continues to steer WAPA toward progress.
“There is no silver bullet that is going to fix the issues we have in this region,” said Hodge. “It will take all of us to put together the pieces of the pie in order to bring us some lower cost energy and more sustainable energy without being dependent on fossil fuels.”