Like Cash, Key Hardware Also Eludes WAPA

WAPA CEO Andy Smith

Money isn’t the only thing in short supply at the Water and Power Authority, WAPA officials said at a meeting of its governing board Thursday. While the embattled utility’s financial concerns have been well publicized, WAPA also faces dramatic challenges in obtaining key hardware vital to power generation and grid stability.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s surprise declaration of emergency to address WAPA’s staggering cash shortfall grabbed the public’s attention on Monday, eliciting raised eyebrows from lawmakers and customers. But it was a national — perhaps global — scarcity of suitable power transformers that hobbled the authority’s quest to prevent unplanned power outages, utility officials explained.

In February 2022, WAPA planned to take St. Thomas’ vital Donald C. Francois substation offline and replace its old air-insulated system with a new, more reliable, gas-insulated system. The $10 million project, fully funded by federal allotments, was supposed to be completed in two months, eliminating costly and dangerous repairs with a safer, smaller system that required minimal maintenance over its 40-year lifespan.

De-energizing the Francois substation meant its duties needed to be picked up by the East End substation. These substations use transformers to convert electrical power to different voltages — from the power station level to a level for home and business use. The transformer at the East End substation, D-T1, isn’t up to the task, having been heavily damaged in the 2017 hurricanes, said Chavante Marsh, WAPA’s director of project management.

Other equipment at the East End substation has been upgraded, but the limiting factor was the 30-year-old transformer, which has been offline for seven years. WAPA tried to restart it but realized the damage was more significant than first thought, officials said. The company that made the transformer is no longer in business, which made getting replacement parts nearly impossible.

“This has caused significant load that has to be shared on both the Donald Francois substation and the Tutu substation, which has brought us to the point where we cannot de-energize the Donald Francois substation until we are able to repair or replace the East End transformer D-T1,” Marsh said.

WAPA has asked its board for several extensions, this time to May 31, 2025, to ensure all the replacement parts and repairs were complete. It’s slow going. Such transformers can take four or more years to build new. The resale market is tight and further complicated by the U.S. Virgin Islands power plants generating electricity at different voltages than the mainland.

“We had a replacement project, however, that transformer was nonfunctional. Due to this, we haven’t been able to restore the feeders for the East End substation, which means that the Donald C. Francois substation and the Tutu substation are carrying the load of the East End substation,” Marsh said. “At this moment, we can’t take down the Donald C. Francois substation because the system would be severely imbalanced and won’t have the capacity to carry the load, which would be only St. John and Tutu.”

Relying on the Francois substation puts large swaths of St. Thomas’ power grid at risk, including Schneider Regional Medical Center, schools, Main Street, Havensight, and more critical infrastructure, Marsh said.

“That’s what makes this project very important. Also, the completion of this project will allow the authority to have the flexibility for scheduled maintenance,” Marsh said.

One plan considered was to put smaller mobile power transformers in place to allow for the Francois substation to be de-energized and updated. But even if the Francois substation were updated — and WAPA made all its fuel and lease payments — rolling power outages were likely without a fully functional East End substation, officials at the meeting said.

Other, less-critical equipment was trickling in, said WAPA CEO Andrew Smith. Purchasing standards for new fire-protective gear had been streamlined, allowing employees greater flexibility in what they wear, and seven of 13 new trucks were on St. Croix and St. Thomas. The rest were on the way but delayed as shippers would only allow two on a cargo ship at a time for fear their lithium batteries could be a fire hazard.