Darkness fell. Across the Northeast of the United States and into Canada, power supply after power supply went off-line. New York City engineers had a nine-second warning that they, too, would be without power. People with knowledge of how the system works were quickly calling the event a cascading power outage.
Here in the Virgin Islands, we are experienced with power outages. That statement is not an indictment of the Water and Power Authority; it is an acknowledgment of the realities of living on an island hit by storms and earthquakes and situated in a very hot climate.
I asked one of our local experts about the state of our power grids and what we can do to improve our service in the islands. With an advanced degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a wealth of experience in Caribbean development, Onaje Jackson, president of Sustainable Systems and Design International, knows much about how to supply energy in an island environment.
"In all of the Virgin Islands, there is a demand for about 120 megawatts of power, and the system is definitely vulnerable," Jackson begins. For instance, St. Croix has just one power loop. (A "loop" is an interconnected power system.) "In the best of worlds, there would be at least two loops on St. Croix," he says.
But all of this talk about loops and grids could make the average person loopy with techno-speak about the fundamentals of having the light come on when he or she flips the switch. If Americans in general and Virgin Islanders in particular learned anything from the blackout, it is that the refrigerator, the air-conditioner, the fans and everything else electrical need to have a reliable source of power. City heat can kill. Losses of food and other perishables — such as blood, which is always in short supply — can be expensive and dangerous.
That point is where Jackson adds a technical term that makes all of the difference: "The key to success is distributed generation." Distributed generation is the concept that many providers throughout the system can add electricity through renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. The solar panels on the roof of the building at the Nature Conservancy's Little Princesse home on St. Croix could add to the power supply for an overburdened WAPA.
If many sites throughout the system were adding power to the whole, the dynamic of production could be greatly improved.
There are other fringe benefits to distributed generation, such as the capacity for one part of the system to sustain damage without shutting down the whole system, and the providing of a reliable source of power at many points throughout the loop. "The two main benefits to distributed generation are that it relieves pressure on existing systems and it relieves pressure caused by growth," Jackson says.
He believes that power providers such as WAPA have a great incentive to apply these principles because it lowers their cost of production and maintenance. And he lauds recent remarks by WAPA's executive director, Alberto Bruno Vega, indicating an interest in exploring renewable energy alternatives for the Virgin Islands.
On an environmental note, Jackson says that "one megawatt of energy produced with fossil fuels creates millions of tons of carbon emissions; renewable sources like solar power create none."
Utilizing distributed generation could well become the wave of the future. The Virgin Islands could easily become the demonstration model for this application. Our air, our savings accounts and our lifestyles could all improve if we tried it.
Editor's note: Bill Turner is a writer, a former history teacher and the executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association. He writes a daily commentary on events in the Virgin Islands that can be accessed at V.I. Buzz.
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