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Monday, July 22, 2024
HomeNewsLocal governmentSenators Look Past WAPA to Solve Energy Crisis

Senators Look Past WAPA to Solve Energy Crisis

Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. and Energy Office Director Kyle Fleming talk energy Friday during a hearing break. (Photo courtesy V.I. Legislature)

Rising fuel costs and persistent outages have pushed the Water and Power Authority to the forefront of the territory’s energy crisis but at Friday’s hearing of the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance, senators set their sights beyond WAPA, focusing their scrutiny on the Virgin Islands Energy Office.

Senators expressed frustration with the pace of the Energy Office’s initiatives. Senate President Novelle Francis highlighted the urgency, stating WAPA’s problems had placed the territory in a “quagmire.” Sen. Diane Capehart also emphasized the need to move away from fossil fuels, which she said were “killing us.”

Kyle Fleming, director of the Energy Office and chair of WAPA’s governing board, presented the office’s budget request and its plans for addressing the energy crisis. He pointed to federal grant programs aimed at bringing solar power to residents and constructing microgrids to improve grid reliability.

However, Francis challenged the speed of implementation, questioning a loan program for renewable energy projects and citing a nine-month wait time for residents still facing “excruciating WAPA bills.” Fleming clarified that no projects had been completed yet, as approvals were underway.

The Energy Office did offer promising developments. Fleming highlighted the $62.5 million Solar for All grant program targeting low- and moderate-income residents, with the potential to bring solar power to 2,000 Virgin Islanders. Additionally, the V.I. Battery Energy Storage Program aims to ease financial barriers to installing backup battery systems at homes and businesses.

Fleming also presented a decreased fiscal year 2025 budget request at $1,556,269, with most of the funding, or $873,489, earmarked for personnel services, along with another $391,105 for fringe benefits. The remainder will be put toward supplies, totaling $25,300, along with $14,000 for utilities and $232,275 for other services and charges. According to Fleming, The Energy Office has 18 full-time positions, with 15 salaries subsidized by the General Fund, three a combination of local and federal dollars and the remaining two wholly covered by federal funds.

Meanwhile, concerns lingered about WAPA’s outstanding debts, which came up during testimony from the Public Services Commission, which also presented its nearly $2.1 million budget, which Executive Director Sandra Setorie said is entirely funded through assessments or public service company revenue.

This includes, she added, assessments owed by WAPA at $1.3 million and the Waste Management Authority at $450,000. Setorie said without those fees, the PSC would run out of funds before the end of the year, which Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory surmised the central government would be forced to pay.

Included in the PSC budget is funding for 13 staff positions, stipends for its five-member commission, fringe benefits, and a 23.5 percent contribution to the Government Employees’ Retirement System. Utility costs for two office sites are also budgeted, along with legal periodicals, cleaning supplies, gas and maintenance, she said.

Sens. Diane Capehart, Dwayne DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, Novelle Francis, Jr., Donna Frett-Gregory, Kenneth Gittens, Javan James, and Carla Joseph attended the meeting.

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