Melee and Missed Opportunities: A Short History of WAPA Part I

When storms strike the territory, WAPA’s power plants and electric grids may be adversely affected.
When storms strike the territory, WAPA’s power plants and electric grids can be adversely affected.

As a bevy of Monday morning quarterbacks continue to amuse themselves on social media, radio talk shows and with letters to the editor bashing our Water and Power Authority, the Source would like to add a history lesson to the mix.

First, WAPA is a public utility belonging to the people of the Virgin Islands. Throwing pointless punches at the beleaguered power provider is as futile as the unchecked – including unfact checked – government bashing that is a major form of dangerous entertainment in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. Constitution long ago established the government as being of, by and for the people. Those who continue to talk trash instead of picking it up and properly disposing of it – or using it to produce energy – appear to think of demoralization as an effective means of encouraging change, growth and teamwork.

And make no mistake, the demoralization is real. During the transition from the prior administration, to the current one, a quasai independent report (see WAPA Cluster Report here) stated employee morale “is at an all-time low.”

“On a scale of 1 to 10 [1 being the lowest] the overall morale is at 3. The Water Department stated their staff was at 1,” the report said.

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Two decades of ill informed accusations, deliberate misinformation, wanton self-interest and political grandstanding easily account for the attitude of employees who work hard, often through storms and in the dead of the night – some dying – so that Virgin Islanders can have their morning coffee, air-conditioning and in fairness, their lights on – only to be thanked with relentless public humiliation.

The Source began to cover WAPA and its leadership 20 years ago. We followed the action from the Public Services Commission to the Legislature, to the board room and back in a vicious cycle of denial, grandstanding, manipulation and plain out mistakes.

All of the above has led to the current state of despair faced by business owners and consumers due to astronomical power bills that threaten the health and well-being of our economy and our community members. Our point in this series is not in any way to minimize the true hardships people face due to the cost and sketchy reliability of our power utility, but as always to fully inform our readers and community of the facts of how we got here in hopes that the community will come together in a way that is productive instead of destructive.

We hope this history will inspire voters and rate payers through understanding the facts, to demand that the Water and Power Authority be dealt with realistically and fairly so that our community can come to a place of forward motion. In the meantime, we all suffer, but not as much as those living in the economic margins or trying to hold businesses together.

In reviewing dozens of old stories that point in a crooked line to our current state, one thing that arises over and over is contention. Contention and lack of cooperation primarily between WAPA, PSC and the Legislature. Contention without meaningful alternative action has paralyzed any hope of progress, leaving Virgin Islanders on the precipice of catastrophe on every level: personal, functional and financial.

Attempt after attempt to engage various power providers and cutting-edge ideas were met with opinions and politics – none of which were based in the growing technologies of the day, and most of which were ditched by commissioners and senators with little depth of knowledge of or experience in the energy field.

When the entire discussion began back in early 2000, nobody knew much about biomass, waste-to-energy or hydrothermal and ocean energy – the primary considerations on the table during the early years of the 21st century.

Those who might have known at least a little bit were serially leading the power authority: Raymond George, Alberto Bruno-Vega; Joseph Thomas; and Hugo Hodge – to name four. They were in the business. They had bright ideas – evidence based ideas. They were each systematically driven away along with the companies that could have been of assistance in solving our energy crisis a decade ago.

Expertise vs. Opinion
Despite the best, most honorable intentions and despite their individual levels of expertise, all of WAPA’s directors were at the end of the day beholden to members of the PSC, who knew nothing except what the commission’s highly paid consultants told them – and even then only if they read and understood the sometimes voluminous reports.

Another fact needs to be established at this point. We, the people, pay the consultants. The cost is woven into WAPA’s base rates and therefore the power bill. That figure often exceeds $1 million a year. In 2019 that bill is expected to be $1.2 million. Between 2015 and 2018 Virgin Islanders paid a total of $6.1 million to the same consultants who have worked for the PSC for decades.

That said, the consultants, over the years, according to at least a couple knowledgeable persons, made some reasonable recommendations. WAPA implemented some of them. Those they didn’t implement were never enforced. Not surprising really, who would have done that and what would the incentive have been for compliance – especially if the WAPA board and leadership did not agree with the recommendation?

Periodically the suggestion would be made within the commission hall to reconfigure the PSC. The idea was to hire three salaried commissioners who actually had experience with the kind of public utilities they were charged with regulating, and forget all the political appointments. The notion was initially spurred, according to a knowledgeable source, by a particularly large bill from off-island consultants. Straightforward. It got no traction from anyone outside the Public Services Commission– which is likely just as well. Who would have made the decision about who to hire? What would the criteria have been? Where would they have had to come from away?

And we know how well those “not from here” fare. A second knowledgeable source, who speaks on condition of anonymity, suggested the idea of a commission of paid advisors was actually the idea of the then-PSC commissioners – hoping to become the highly paid advisors themselves. Either way, commissioners who are paid small stipends that at the time were $50 a day still serve at the pleasure of the governor.

The same transition report noted above (WAPA Cluster Report) suggests getting rid of the PSC’s oversight on WAPA along with the consultants.

“One recommendation is a Utility Commission that represents all stakeholders. This would funnel all concerns to a central entity that would coordinate with the utility as a quasi-judicial body outside of the political process. This would require a legislative remedy but would also protect the utility from ad hoc policy developed out of political posturing.”

Next: The Power Players

Editor’s note: Bill Kossler and Kelsey Nowakowski contributed to this report.

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