After the dust settled following the November 4 Virgin Islands general election, Democrats found themselves atop the polls and the 28th Legislature, which will feature a new senate president and majority leader.
Adlah “Foncie” Donastorg will be the new senate president and Neville James will be the legislature’s majority leader.
Also returning to power in the next legislature is former Senator at Large Craig Barshinger, who will be chairperson of the Committee on Economic Development, Energy and Agriculture. It’s a fitting position for the senator, who made reducing the rising cost of electricity territory-wide a major platform of his campaign.
While there are currently some small steps being taken by the government to off-set the skyrocketing V.I. Water And Power Authority costs, many people across the territory still can’t afford their monthly bills, Barshinger explained.
Living Without Power
“We have to make sure people aren’t going without current,” said Barshinger. “There are people living in their homes without electricity because they can’t afford their power bills. A person making between $12,000 and $14,000 a year can’t afford their WAPA bills.”
“Even simply keeping a refrigerator and a fan on can put a WAPA bill at $400 a month, which is beyond many people’s salary range,” Barshinger said.
The kilowatt hour rate in the Virgin Islands is far higher than the average cost in the states, Barshinger added.
“Here we’re paying about 50-cents a kilowatt hour and it should fall to about 40-cents a kilowatt hour,” he said. “But even then we’ll still be paying four to five times the national average.”
A proponent of solar energy, Barshinger has short-term, mid-term and long-term plans to bring the cost of electricity from around 50-cents a kilowatt hour to 20-cents a kilowatt hour.
Lowering Electricity Costs
“My main goal is to propose legislation that will foster the goal of bringing electricity out of the stratosphere down to a level where people can afford to pay,” said the recently elected senator at large. “For the short-term we have to make sure that our programs are actually working. We have to ensure that our subsidies are effective.”
While Barshinger is focused on a long term goal of constructing modern solar plants on St. Thomas and St. Croix — major undertakings that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but would ensure clean, affordable energy — in the meantime, it’s time to look at WAPA’s efficiency, he explained.
“We have to get efficiency issues at WAPA under control,” Barshinger said. “We can not afford to do anything less than make sure our waste heat recovery and electrical generation are working properly.”
It’s time to change the way the public utility provider is being run, according to Barshinger.
Loses Too High
“The problem is that we want to run WAPA in the same laid-back, mellow way that we always have run it and it may be that the only way to have affordable electricity is to run WAPA in a different way,” he said. “Right now WAPA has a 17 percent loss they generate, when two to three percent loss is normal. The loss is due to line loss — energy is lost when they pipe it through the lines.”
“Seventeen percent loss means that everyone is paying a 17 percent surcharge on their bills,” Barshinger said. “Because of this loss WAPA is not efficiently distributing power.”
The senator-elect’s other mid-term goals to bring down the cost of electricity include firing up an existing coal plant on St. Croix and running an underwater cable from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas.
“It’s a shallow water table there and the project could be something like the cable which runs from St. Thomas to St. John,” said Barshinger. “The cable could carry very inexpensive coal-generated electricity to St. Thomas. It’s something to look at.”
Barshinger is clear on his long-term goal of building a solar plant on 400 acres in St. Croix which could produce 64 Megawatts and constructing a similar plant on St. Thomas.
“The solar plant uses parabolic mirrors to heat a working fluid to 700° F,” said the recently elected senator at large. “This fluid then drives a Rankin-cycle steam turbine, just like a conventional coal-fired plant. After 9:00 p.m., the heat from the sun is used up, and we must burn petroleum coke, coal, or other inexpensive fuel.”
“This would meet all of St. Croix’s needs, with some to spare,” he continued. “A similar plant must be built for St. Thomas-St. John, although undersea cables may shortly be cost-effective, allowing the islands to share.”
While the idea is a modern one, the technology is there and it makes perfect sense in the Caribbean, Barshinger added.
“Most importantly, this plan uses off-the-shelf technology,” he said. “This approach should reduce our electricity cost to under 20-cent per kilowatt-hour. At latitudes such as ours, the earth’s surface receives 1,000 watts of solar energy per square meter.”
“The sun is a gift from nature that we should not turn our backs on,” said Barshinger. “It’s a gift we should use as a zero carbon footprint source.”
Federal Dollars Are Possible
While each plant would cost about $300 million, Barshinger has already been in talks to obtain federal funding, he explained.
“I have spoken with the delegate to congress to petition the senate to make the Virgin Islands a special test area where we could be getting some federal help to use renewable energy in a big way where other states could use it as a model,” Barshinger said. “They could absorb some of the start-up costs and in return we could agree to start new efforts. The federal government is interested in these things and we could explore that possibility.”