Lawrence Kupfur, executive director and CEO of the Water and Power Authority, on Friday outlined plans for the utility’s future, teling a Senate committee WAPA will use federal funds to rebuild the territory’s power system stronger produce power cheaply and efficiently.
But Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly countered Kapfur’s rosy prediction, saying, “We are tired of hearing the cost of electricity will be reduced.”
In 2014, then-CEO Hugo Hodge, Jr. predicted that ratepayers would see a 30 percent reduction in their bills because of WAPA’s transiting to propane fuel. The propane switch ran into setbacks.
At Friday’s meeting of the Committee on Government Affairs, Veterans, Energy and Environmental Protection, senators learned the transition is still not complete. Oil, which costs 30 percent more than propane, is still being burned by a generator on St. Thomas.
What is different with Kupfur’s prediction is WAPA has millions of dollars in what he calls “free money.” With the “free money” WAPA expects to turn to the sun and wind – free fuel – to generate power. The free money Kapfur is referring to is $625 million dollars WAPA will receive from Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Kupfur said there was a 10 percent local match required for those funds, but the match could come from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In April HUD announced it has set aside $1.6 billion for the U.S. Virgin Islands for disaster recovery.
Senators questioned Kapfur about a pivot to solar energy in light of the five megawatt solar farm on St. Thomas that appears to have been almost totally destroyed in hurricane winds last September. Kapfur replied that the four megawatt solar farm on St. Croix took relatively limited damage in the hurricanes.
“Things were done differently there. We have learned how to do better,” he said.
According to Kupfur, WAPA has heard that the owner of the solar farm on St. Thomas has no intention of rebuilding and is looking to sell the site.
Kupfur said WAPA’s inability to upgrade sufficiently previously was lack of “access to money.” He said HUD funds will be used on utility-scale wind and solar projects and utility-scale battery system. In that is included a proposed four megawatt solar farm in the Coral Bay area on St. John. This would help facilitate plans for St. John to have its own micro-grid and not be dependent on St. Thomas for power.
Kupfur said WAPA has other plans for the federal money as well. He told the senators that $440 million of federal money will be used for underground transmission lines. These transmission lines – about 300 miles worth – will be in Frederiksted and Christiansted on St. Croix, Cruz Bay on St. John and Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook on St. Thomas. Upon completion, an estimated 50 percent of customers will have underground power from distribution feeders, according to Kupfur
The few underground transmission lines WAPA has now were not damaged by the storms, he said. He predicted with the new transmission lines underground most residents will have their electricity restored rather quickly after a storm.
Other benefits of having underground transmission lines include no need for regular tree trimming, fewer emergency calls and less line loss.
The two hurricanes last September reportedly damaged 90 percent of WAPA’s infrastructure. Kupfur said 1,000 workers came from the mainline to help restore power. Power demand on the islands has dropped by 20 percent since the storms, the utility executive said, with the biggest drop being in the St. Thomas/St. John district.
Senators present at the hearing were Sammuel Sanes, Kurt Vialet, Nereida O’Reilly, Neville James, Janelle Sarauw, and Tregenza Roach.