On Friday, the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure received testimony from the Water and Power Authority regarding the status of disaster-related projects in the territory.
Ongoing projects for WAPA are hazard mitigation projects, which include underground and composite pole infrastructure, generator installations, and renewable energy.
“On St. Croix, approximately 83% of the wood poles will be transitioned to underground utilities,” said Vernon Alexander, WAPA’s interim chief operating officer. He mentioned that 82% of the existing wood poles on St. Thomas and the downtown area of St. John will go underground as well. Areas unfit for underground systems will receive composite poles. So far, 2,460 of 4,003 have been installed on St. Croix, 1,422 of 2,333 have been installed on St. Thomas, and 1,193 of 1,960 have been installed on St. John. All 200 composite poles have been installed on Water Island since 2019.
In addition, two emergency generators will be installed at the island loads center in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay on St. John, a new generational unit is also being planned for the Richmond Power Plant on St. Croix and the East End substation is almost complete on St. Thomas. The air-insulated switchgear, relays, and meters will also be replaced at the Donald C. Francois substation.
Discussion was also held about WAPA’s water infrastructure projects.
“WAPA currently provides potable water service to approximately 13,000 customers across the territory,” said Alexander, and expansion is underway.
Sen. Franklin Johnson inquired about the pipes causing “rusty water” for customers.
Noel Hodge, director of water distribution, said that “those projects are in the works.” He mentioned that there have been some ductile water pipes installed since the 1940s and that WAPA is in the process of replacing the pipes that are causing rusty water with C900 PVC pipes. On St. Croix, pipes in Christiansted and Frederiksted have already been addressed. Clifton Hill will be next on St. Croix and Mahogany Estate, and Blackbeard’s Hill will be addressed next on St. Thomas. Currently, there is 10% water loss and 40% water loss on St. Thomas and St. Croix, respectively, because of the outdated pipes.
According to WAPA’s chief executive officer, Andrew Smith, the top three challenges for WAPA involve tactical execution and resources, finances, and fuel impact.
Base rate costs for the Virgin Islands are between $0.22-$0.24, with LEAC being $0.22, according to Smith.
“The rates for the Virgin Islands are among the highest in the mainland U.S. and largely in the world,” he said.
In addition, Alexander said that over $1 million dollars are being paid to WAPA monthly for operations and maintenance of the propane facility, which is included in the base rate for customers. Smith said that structurally reducing the debt for WAPA and less reliance on fossil fuels will help decrease the base rate for customers.
Sen. Kurt Vialet expressed concern about other obligations under the base rate that can affect customers. One aspect he addressed was the anticipated solar facility to be built on St. Croix.
“My real concern is to whether or not this proposed solar facility if we’re seeking federal funds, or are we going into agreement with a private company,” asked Vialet.
Smith replied WAPA would work with a private company and that the rate per kWh would be reduced from $0.22 to $0.08.
Sen. Vialet, however, expressed concern that if the solar facility is damaged, “we’ll be at the mercy of hoping that that company has sufficient insurance and can rebuild as quick as possible to get St. Croix back up,” said Vialet.
The facility is anticipated to be turned over to the V.I. government in a few years’ time as well if funding permits. However, Smith said that is only a potential option.
Additionally, WAPA still estimates meter rates for 8% of its customers. An advanced metering infrastructure system is used. However, Ashley Bryan, director of transmission and distribution, said that the authority is seeing failures of communication with meters.
“We have approximately $18 million in a project worksheet that’s funded from FEMA to be able to do some corrective actions for the AMI system,” said Bryan.
Furthermore, Sen. Johnson addressed CEO Smith about being more engaging with employees.
“WAPA is creating hardship for our people,” said Johnson. “I’ve got complaints on you from your employees,” he added.
Sen. Johnson said he was also trying to schedule a meeting with the CEO to discuss a situation where a company on St. Croix paid $13,000 to WAPA in January but still has not received a “connection.” The senator said he even experienced a lack of enthusiasm when trying to schedule a time to connect with Smith.
Smith said he has met with 75% of his staff and plans to meet with the remaining employees in the following 90 days.
Sens. Janelle Sarauw, Kurt Vialet, Steven Payne, Carla Joseph, Marvin Blyden, and Franklin Johnson were present.