April 12, 2008 — For the first time, the U.S. Congress convened a hearing Saturday in Frederiksted on St. Croix, in response to rising utility bills in the territory.
Flanked by Rep. Jim Costa (D-Cal.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, and subcommittee member Bill Schuster (R-Penn.), Delegate Donna M. Christensen (D-V.I.) chaired a joint hearing of the Energy and Insular Affairs subcommittees in the V.I. Legislature's Fritz Lawaetz Conference Room. They heard testimony from local utilities, regulatory agencies, local government offices, federal agencies and private industry on energy issues facing the U.S Virgin Islands and to a lesser extent, the other insular U.S. territories.
"We are here because we are trying to face the challenges of being here," Costa said. "The utility rates here are the second highest in the U.S., second only to American Samoa."
Virgin Islands representatives from the Energy Office, the Legislature, the Water and Power Authority and the Public Services Commission testified about efforts to move to alternative power and answered questions from Christensen and the two congressmen. Many of the local testifiers emphasized similar themes.
"The only way the utility has been able to survive has been to impose unending increase on the ratepayers, in a way that is unsustainable," said Donald "Ducks" Cole, assistant chairman of the Public Services Committee.
"Residents are paying more than 34 cents a kilowatt hour and rates above 40 cents are on the horizon. Families of the poor and elderly simply cannot afford the increases in cost."
Cole noted Virgin Islanders already consume less than half the electricity per capita than the U.S. average.
"It is evident that we must establish a mechanism to finance the development, production and distribution of clean energy in the Virgin Islands," Senate President Usie Richards said. "Our territorial government, despite its willingness, does not possess the necessary capital to ascertain and retain clean, renewable and sustainable energy."
WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. briefed the committee on the utility's recent efforts to move toward alternative power generation, increase plant efficiency and reduced consumption. Hodge also identified federal funds that should be available under the Energy Security Act of 2005, and suggested how they could best be used.
"We would point to our potential development of an undersea connection between St. Thomas and St. Croix as a good example of a project that might be particularly appropriate," he said.
The subcommittee looked at ocean thermal power generation, solar, wind, coal and burning municipal waste to generate energy. All had some potential as well as drawbacks.
Ocean thermal is untested, but Sea Solar Power International, the company bidding to build such a plant, is willing to invest its own capital at its own risk. Solar has high start-up costs, but James Resor of groSolar said the costs are competitive if absorbed over the life of the system.
Generating energy from municipal waste uses a readily available resource, local trash, and takes strain off local landfills, said Frazier Blaylock of Covanta Holding Corporation, a company that builds such plants. But Blaylock said the territory doesnt produce quite enough trash to meet the ideal threshold for economies of scale.
Christensen asked Nikolao Pula of the Interior Department if more funding from Interior was realistic.
"Energy basically became a crisis in the last year or so," said Pula, Interior's acting deputy assistant secretary for insular affairs. "We need to really think seriously on focusing our limited resources on the crisis."
That may help address the long-term problem, Christensen said, then asked what could be done in the short term. No one offered any form of immediate relief.
A high point of the hearing came when Costa asked about Energy Department record keeping.
"I notice the Department of Energy doesn't keep data like with the states," Costa said. "I mean you treat them almost like a foreign country. It doesn't make sense to me, because these are our citizens we are talking about."
The room burst into applause at this comment.
Christensen said one reason for the hearing was to establish a record for Congress to use and refer to. She invited residents to submit testimony to her office and said the record will remain open for ten more days. Residents can call her St. Croix office at 778-5900, St. Thomas at 774-4408 and St. John at 776-1212 for more information.
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