WAPA Board: Weeks of Outages Come Down to Money, Maintenance and Nature

WAPA board members meet on St. Thomas and St. Croix during their regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday. (Screenshot from Teams meeting)
WAPA board members meet on St. Thomas and St. Croix during their regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday. (Screenshot from Teams meeting)

After three weeks of incessant island-wide power outages that have left residents frustrated and searching for answers, the V.I. Water and Power Authority addressed the causes and gave updates on the disruptions during its regularly scheduled board meeting on Thursday.

From natural causes — including a lightning strike on St. Thomas — to faulty equipment, the blackouts have stemmed from different matters, WAPA CEO Andrew Smith said of the “recent string of outages.”

“It’s not been one thing, it’s been a sequence of a lot of different things that has been causing these repeated outages,” said Smith. “Going back three weeks ago, I think we all recall we had a wave of very heavy weather come through the territory, as a result of that we suffered quite a few outages.” He also referenced a lightning strike that caused power loss at the Randolph Harley Power Plant on St. Thomas.

During the first week of the recent outages, Smith said that a faulty sensor reading was tripping off equipment and causing what he called, “nuisance trips.” Smith said that failsafe mechanisms are installed in the generators for safety and to prevent damage to the equipment. He also addressed the misinformed mention of an explosion that occurred at the Harley plant on May 9 that caused power outage on St. Thomas and St. John.

Smith said no explosion occurred but rather, it was the failure of a disc located in the shaft of the Wartsila generator between the generator and the engine that became obsolete and needed to be replaced. The sound of the disc tripping caused the loud noise.

“There’s a coupling in there that’s designed, when that torque exceeds certain limits, that coupling is designed to fail,” said Smith.

During the second week, a leak in Unit 15’s propane supply valve to the plant on St. Thomas yet again caused a power loss. This also led to WAPA switching its generator to operate on a short supply of diesel, leading to rotating power outages to conserve fuel.

“We were not anticipating having such an increased consumption of diesel, having to operate the plant on diesel and not have it available on propane,” said Smith. This led to residents having to rotate power on a Thursday and Friday night during what Smith called “peak” time because the additional supply of diesel that was ordered did not arrive on time.

During the third week, power outages occurred because of impaired equipment. Most recently, on Wednesday, Unit 23, the largest unit on St. Thomas, tripped twice and caused a loss of power island-wide both in the morning and the afternoon.

“It tripped on loss of flame,” said Smith. The authority then changed a collapsed fuel filter to service the unit and restore power.

“We continue to have Unit 15 operating on diesel,” said Smith. He added that the fuel valve for the unit to operate on propane is currently in New York being repaired and should be back in the territory next week and in service.

Smith told the board that the generators in the territory are seven to 12 years past due for maintenance. They should be maintained every two years, but the authority lacks the funding to do so. He also said it does not have the funds to do major maintenance for all of the units right now but highlighted that Unit 27 recently had an assessment by an outside vendor and that a schedule of preventative maintenance is in place for all units.

“In terms of the maintenance, I think everybody knows that the authority’s financial position has been strained for an extended period of time,” said Smith. “Gas turbines generally go through a major maintenance overhaul every two years.”

Smith also said that while the power outages are inconvenient, the positive side is that the outages allow for the authority the opportunity to do preventative maintenance that can only be done when the generators are powered down.

During the meeting, it was mentioned that the recent heat waves and rainfall have been causing a greater demand on electricity, in turn making the generators work harder, leading to burnouts and transient outages.

Ashley Bryan, WAPA’s interim chief operating officer, said that the weather has been making it hard to troubleshoot an issue with an underground transmission line that caused power to fail on St. John starting on Wednesday, when there was more than four inches of rainfall.

“The weather was impacting our ability to find fault this morning,” said Bryan of the power outage.

Board member Kyle Fleming asked Smith what can be done to get the authority to a zero outage scenario.

“We can never be to a zero outage scenario, we can be reduced outages,” said Smith. “In the states, everything is built to a triple redundancy … We do not have that. We’re essentially, in some instances a single redundancy utility and some instances a double redundancy utility.”

Smith said that to reduce outages, vegetation management, maintenance on generators, and having an inventory for spare parts for equipment would be required. He mentioned that generator repairs would cost between $2 to $5 million per generator.

Additionally, Smith said during the meeting that the Department of Interior has funded both Ford Lightning electric trucks for the authority that have been distributed on St. Thomas and St. Croix, as well as funded employee training.

Board members Hubert Turnbull, Kyle Fleming, Cheryl Boynes-Jackson, Lionel Selwood, Maurice Muia, and Juanita Young were present.