WAPA Board Focuses on Infrastructure Improvement Projects in Monthly Meeting

The Governing Board of the V.I. Water and Power Authority approved several items relating to capital improvement during its monthly meeting, Thursday in St. Thomas, while acknowledging that it faces an uphill battle to keep up with increasing demand and an aging infrastructure.

The board voted on several projects brought forward by the Board’s Finance and Audit Committee, including two concerning the Richmond Substation and a water line in Estate Whim on St. Croix.

The Board authorized an additional $277,900 for the ongoing Richmond Substation upgrade project.

According to Clinton Hedrington, WAPA’s Director of Transmission and Distribution, the additional funds were needed because problems were recently found in protection schemes, transformers, and fencing at the site. The funds will come from bonds that were issued in 2010.

The change order will allow for enhanced protection of the existing 15 kV bus and T1 and T3 transformers, new fencing to comply with all safety requirements and industry standards, and modification of the 25kV switchgear and the associated protection panels.

Hedrington noted that the change order will not extend the time allotted for completion of the project, which is scheduled to be finished in January 2012. It is already three to four months ahead of schedule and 98 percent done.

The board also approved a $1.8 million contract with V.I. Paving Inc. for completion of a new water line in Estate Whim. The plan is to install 15,870 linear feet of six-inch C-900 PVC pipe in order to improve water quality for customers in the area and reduce line loss caused by aging infrastructure.

Rupert Pelle, St. Croix Director of Water, said the project will also include the installation of fire hydrants, replacement of mailboxes, and the repaving of roads in affected areas. He added that WAPA is coordinating with the Department of Public Works to schedule WAPA’s excavation work before the DPW’s own road paving projects take place.

70 percent of the Estate Whim project is funded via a grant from the federal Drinking Water Capital Improvement Program, which is administered by the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources. The remainder of the funds is being provided by the V.I. Legislature.

Pelle explained that every four years the federal government conducts a needs-assessment survey to determine how much money is needed for infrastructure improvement projects. The survey, which WAPA participated in, recently prompted Congress to boost the territory’s allotment of grant funding for water rehabilitation projects.

The Virgin Islands, along with the other American territories, previously shared .33% of the yearly federal allotment, which amounted to about $300,000: now that amount has risen to about $7 million per year.

“Because of our participation in that survey, more funding is now coming in from the federal side,” Pelle said.

WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. said that despite the increased funding from the federal government, the rate at which the V.I. is finding funds to improve infrastructure does not equal the demands put on the system.

“Unless there is a significant amount of effort to come up with more grants, we’re going to keep asking the existing system to meet demand that it just can’t bear,” Hodge said. “The aging infrastructure coupled with growing demand could cause a train wreck.”

However, Hodge emphasized that the Virgin Islands are not unique in this regard. “This is a common problem around the country, and the world,” he added.

Cities from New York to London are facing mounting bills as they try to replace and fix crumbling cast-iron pipes that have been in place long past their 60-year life span. Some cities, he said, even have wooden pipes that pre-date the use of iron piping.

Pelle noted that the Virgin Islands does suffer a fair amount of “line loss” – water pipe leakage – but he said the territory falls within the normal industry range. The national average for line loss is 15%, which is the St. Thomas rate, while St. Croix suffers from a slightly higher 20-25% rate.

Pelle added that the water division has been having great success with its 24 electronic meters that allow staff to find leaks remotely. He said that two leaks were found and fixed recently, including one that was losing 3 million gallons a month, and one hemorrhaging a whopping 12 million gallons per month.

In Other Business:

  • The Board approved a 50-day extension to the Tip Top Construction contract for the Anna’s Retreat Heights Waterline Expansion Project. Work on the project was delayed due to rain and rock excavation. The project is now scheduled to be completed by January 22, 2012.
  • The Board approved the purchase of transmission and distribution line materials from Electric Supply of Tampa, not to exceed $1,008,000 in FY 2012, for the purpose of re-stocking inventory used in response to storm events in FY 2012. The pay-as-you-go on-demand inventory system will allow WAPA to respond more quickly to routine maintenance and unforeseen/emergency events and will ease the agency’s cash flow issues.
  • The Board authorized the reprogramming of $1.8M of the 2010 Revenue bonds that were designated for the Midland Substation Project to three alternate projects: 1) the demolition of Richmond Substation outdoor 25kV switchyard and fencing installation; 2) the termination, splicing, testing and commissioning of a 69kV transmission circuit; and 3) payment for outstanding invoices for the St. John submarine cable project, the Richmond Substation project and the Harley Substation Project ($116,984).
  • Executive Director Hodge updated the board on the status of the water plants on St. Thomas. He said the waste heat boiler was down for repairs and units #18 and #15 were off-line on Tuesday when unit #11 boiler tripped off-line, making it impossible for WAPA to produce water on St. Thomas. At that time he asked for water rationing, in order to allow time for storage to build up well in advance of the impending Thanksgiving holiday. He said the offline units should be on-line by the end of the day Thursday, and that normal water operations will resume in a few days.
  • Hodge also said that he has received the findings from phase two of the Siemens feasibility study which is examining how much renewable energy the VI electric grid can handle: without interconnection with another island such as Puerto Rico, 10% would be the limit. Attorney Gerald Groener explained that in closed systems such as the VI’s, there’s a ceiling on how much power from renewable energy can be put into the system. Since renewable energy is not “dispatchable” – you can’t control when it comes and goes – a “spinning” reserve (traditional generator) is required as a backup to provide power when wind or solar is not available. It is extremely costly to run two parallel systems. However if we were to connect to a grid like the one on Puerto Rico, from whom we could buy electricity, the maximum capacity for renewable energy goes much higher.
  • During the recurring “WAPA Working For You” presentation, St. Thomas Chief Meter Reader Anthony Vialet explained the basics of electric meter-reading, tagging, and bill estimation. Vialet, who has worked for WAPA for 17 years, said that traditional dial meters are read from right to left, and each dial drives the next one to its left. He explained that if a meter reader finds a locked gate, dogs, or bushes, he may not be able to get a reading, and will have to submit an estimate based on the average of the prior three months. He also explained the color-coded seals that are placed on the meters: red=active account; yellow=disconnected for non-payment; purple=finalized customer/unoccupied home; and white=medical. During the most light-hearted part of his presentation he revealed the numerous ways customers try to illegally bypass the meter, for example, using auto jumper cables or even simple extension cords. He said that several customers had recently been caught and punished for such schemes, which amounts to stealing.
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