U.S. Virgin Islands Power Crisis Prompts Protests

Gathered next to the Fort united in their equal frustration against constant power outages.(Source photo by Joshua Crawford Barry)

Residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands took to the streets Monday to protest against the ongoing power crisis, citing the Water and Power Authority’s history of unreliable service and frequent outages. The recent escalation of the crisis has resulted in extended power outages, impacting businesses, healthcare facilities and daily life for residents, they said.

A crowd of about 50, dressed in black despite the heat, gathered across from the Legislature, demanding accountability and immediate action from both WAPA and the government. The protest came in the middle of another all-day rotation, which resulted from Unit 23 being taken off-line last week for testing, according to a Monday news release.

Feeder 13, which was responsible for the previous outages, was fixed Friday, but until Unit 23 comes back online, rotations will continue, according to WAPA.

Sen. Marvin Blyden, present at the protest, acknowledged the significance of public pressure and encouraged more residents to participate.

“Strength in numbers is what counts. If we don’t see the numbers, it’s like we don’t have to listen to them,” he remarked.

WAPA, established in 1964, has faced longstanding challenges including financial mismanagement, aging infrastructure, and political interference. The current crisis has further highlighted the urgent need for reform and modernization, according to residents.

“My aunt has tracked power outages from September to May, and it went off 52 times. It’s becoming quite personal for a lot of islanders beyond just the power being out. We need reliable power to cope with the heat waves and for basic necessities like keeping food and medicine safe,” resident Leah Trotman said.

Lawmakers have introduced various measures to address the situation, including overriding a gubernatorial veto on a bill sponsored by former Sen. Janelle Sarauw to bring in a turnaround management company for oversight and promoting renewable energy initiatives.

Senators have voiced their frustration, emphasizing the need for better management and accountability within WAPA. They also pointed out that despite receiving millions in federal assistance for infrastructure improvements, the authority has struggled to provide consistent service.

“We have aging infrastructure, that’s for sure,” said Sen. Milton Potter, who came out to talk to protestors Monday. “We’ve been holding things together for a long time and the long-term solution is really to incorporate renewables into the grid. And that’s the paradoxical situation – we have an unprecedented amount of money from the federal government to address this, but we can’t do the things, like maintenance, that we need to do in order to access it immediately.”

Potter added that finding a fix requires “all of us putting our heads together” and looking at something new, perhaps along the lines of a public-private partnership like the one initiated by the V.I. Port Authority to upgrade and manage the airports.

“Maybe that’s something that will come out of the turnaround management company’s assessment, but we also need the capacity and manpower to not just patch, but overhaul WAPA, and something that’s going to take time to get to, while also in the short term figuring out how to have reliable power,” he said.

Residents expressed their concerns over the financial and personal impact of the outages, citing spoiled food, damaged equipment, and the inability to cope with the heat without reliable power. The economic toll has been particularly significant for small businesses, which have suffered losses due to disrupted operations.

“If the power is consistently going out, it’s mashing up your freezers. What are you going to do then? The government isn’t giving you money to buy a new freezer or replenish the food,” they said.

Protestor shares grievances with sign in front of the legislature. (Source photo by Joshua Crawford Barry)

One proposed solution is a shift towards renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower, which could reduce the territory’s reliance on costly imported oil.

“We are surrounded by multiple different types of renewable energy. We have hydro. We have solar. We have wind. We no longer need to be reliant on Middle Eastern oil that costs us millions of dollars every single year,” resident Rudel Hodge Jr. said.

The crisis extends beyond the inconvenience of outages, affecting critical services like healthcare and education. Residents have highlighted the impact on vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, who rely on medication that requires refrigeration.

The call for accountability has been a recurring theme, with residents demanding transparency and effectiveness in WAPA’s operations. Lawmakers have advocated for greater oversight and audits of the authority’s activities, said Sen. Kenneth Gittens.

“We are an American territory, yet we experience rolling blackouts as if we were in a third-world country,” Gittens said, also pointing out that despite receiving millions in federal assistance for infrastructure improvements post-hurricanes, the authority has struggled to provide consistent service.

The power crisis in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a complex issue with widespread consequences for the community’s well-being and economic stability. The recent protests and ongoing discussions highlight the urgent need for comprehensive action and investment in sustainable solutions, said Randolph Bennett, a gubernatorial candidate, who addressed the protesters and offered a vision of change through innovation.

“We don’t burn things down with fire but with new ideas and innovation,” Bennett stated, advocating for a transformation in how the territory approaches energy production and management.

Meanwhile, as outages continue, WAPA said it is looking at two alternatives.

“WAPA Plant Personnel are currently pursuing two routes to bring back online Unit 23, including purchasing a new megawatt transducer and configuring a replacement transducer,” officials said in the Monday release.