This is part of an ongoing a series on the V.I. Water and Power Authority.
Multiple power outages have plagued the territory in recent months, particularly impacting St. Thomas and St. John.
Lawrence Kupfer, executive director of the V.I. Water and Power Authority, said the outages may largely be over, thanks to improvements to some generators and other generators returning to service.
But whether due to a system-wide failure or a planned outage for work, outages have a harsh impact on businesses throughout the territory, making it hard to stay open, damaging equipment and interfering with processing sales.
“The reliability issue, which we are well into addressing, that was not acceptable. We know we have to produce reliable power,” Kupfer said in a recent interview with the Source.
“WAPA is keenly aware of the adverse effect electrical service interruptions has on all of our customers, including businesses, which often experience a loss of customers and revenue, unturned inventory, decreased employee productivity and reduced levels of functionality, just to name a few,” Kupfer said.
Local business owners agreed.
“It has affected us a lot, especially with our credit card service, and sometimes with our light,” said Sheril Penn, of Daylight Bakery on Norre Gade, St. Thomas.
“Sometimes people think we’re not open. It has been horrendous, and on top of that it’s slow season, so this is the time you’re supposed to be out there, trying to make some money. So it has affected us,” Penn said.
Marcos Jiminez of Marcos Air Condition & Refrigeration Repair, Sales and Service on Dronnigens Gade, St. Thomas, said the outages affect every aspect of business.
“I’m tired of WAPA. Every day, same problem. When you have no power you have no work. The recycling machine has to recharge, the pumping machine, even my computer in the office. I only have a small generator and that’s for the lights at night,” Jiminez said.
Another St. Thomas contractor had a similar response.
“If I don’t have power, I go home. When the power comes in, I go back. People always complain about ‘Oh, the power’s out … ’ I’m thankful – so, I lost a fridge – but I’m thankful,” said John McCleverty, of MCE Contracting, a general contractor doing water damage and mold remediation. McCleverty was working with a crew on Seventh Day Adventist Street, Polyberg, St. Thomas.
Halvor Hart IV of Evolution Bar & Grill/Hart’s Kitchen on Norre Gade told the Source that the outages aren’t just a nuisance; they’re a health issue.
“For me, in the past couple of weeks … lost a freezer, had to change a compressor for the fridge; no exhaust fans in the kitchen. No A/C; customers can’t sit and enjoy their lunch, so we have to close.
Can’t have the staff in the kitchen when the fans are off, because it gets too hot. And that’s a health problem,” Hart said.
Although St. Croix does not suffer the number of power outages as St. Thomas, when they do strike, businesses suffer.
Business owners’ complaints about the Water and Power Authority are justified – outages and surges cost hard cash. Even those with generators experience burnt out electronics, while others go through a complete shutdown while the outage lasts. Some employees don’t make any money if the business remains closed, and the owners lose customers.
All the St. Croix business people who talked to the Source said, with resignation, something along the lines of “We’re all in this together.”
“WAPA is WAPA,” is the way Ali, one of the owners of Food Town, put it. (He did not want to give his last name.) Ali complained about power fluctuations that over the years have burned up office electronics. Just in the last two months, they have lost point of sale equipment and a toaster.
Ali also talked about his store’s utility bill. Until they added solar power, the grocery store paid about $32,000 a month. Now the bill is down to $15,000.
Molly Buckley, St. Croix Underwater Blue Water Adventures co-owner, spoke of her business losses. After the 2017 hurricane, two air conditioner splits, costing $2,600 each, suffered an “early demise” due to current fluctuations. She said reliable electricity has been inconsistent since the downtown streets were dug up to lay underground power lines in 2012.
When the power goes down, the dive shop and the retail clothing store cannot use the cash registers or credit card equipment, so no sales can be made. Fortunately, they are allowed to use the Caravelle Hotel’s generator to fill air tanks. SCUBA’s utility bills are $1,500 a month for the Christiansted stores and $1,300 for the Frederiksted shop.
Dashi owner Mike McKinnon talked about a familiar scenario when the power goes down in his Christiansted restaurant. As Tropical Storm Dorian approached St. Croix with rain and very little wind, McKinnon prepared for the evening service. The shop went dark just after food had been prepared and just before customers were expected. He waited a good while and the power came back and then went out again until the next day. Food was lost and the employees wasted their time waiting for tips that never materialized.
“We finally just gave up the ghost,” McKinnon said. “It’s un-doable for a small business. We just continue to do it because we want to live here.”
Beeston Hill Health and Wellness Center also complained about equipment failure and blamed recent WAPA power surges for the loss of three treadmill machines and several television sets. In addition to training equipment, there are medical electronics such as an ultrasound, laser and scanners at risk. The battery backups don’t prevent loss, but are destroyed also, Beeston Hill manager Wendy Keeler said.
The most crucial time is just before the generator transfer switch kicks in and the power surges or contracts – “a rapid unbuffered shut-off,” she called it.
“Having to protect equipment with triple redundancy is not normal,” Keeler said.
The health club pays about $7,500 a month for utilities augmented by solar energy. Without solar, the bill would be $18,000 to $20,000, Keeler estimated.
Armrey Industries, cabinet makers, has also lost electronics with power fluctuations, but has grown to accept it, said Armrey manager Patricia King. The company would not have survived without a generator after Hurricane Maria, she said, as they were energized months after the rest of the area due to a damaged weather head. Before the days of a generator, staff was given other duties during power outages.
Smaller island St. John has been hit hard too, losing power whenever St. Thomas goes out.
“Our building and Island Fancy – the building over there – we are part of Mongoose Two. We have a generator. When the power goes out at the buildings in Mongoose One, they have to shut down. But over here, we are OK,” said Sarah Webb, store manager at Big Planet in Mongoose Junction Shopping Center.
“It’s very, very disappointing, because we depend so much on power. We have a lot of freezers and when the power goes out it affects our business,” said William Fernandez, owner/manager of Irie Pops frozen treat store in Cruz Bay.
Randy Herby, the owner and manager of Freebird Creations in Cruz Bay, said no power means no business.
“Every time WAPA goes off we go off. We keep the doors open but we can’t run the credit cards. And then we sit in the hot and the dark, waiting for WAPA to come back on,” Herby said.
Not everyone the Source contacted said they were harmed by the recent outages.
“Haven’t had much of any effect on us. I wouldn’t say it’s had much effect on us,” said Conrad Sutton, owner/operator of Conrad Sutton Jeep Rental in Cruz Bay.
Sutton said the business needs power to run the water pump and the vacuums for cleaning rental vehicles. Also the credit card machines, although he reached under his desk and pulled out an old school, slide operated manual imprint card device.
“Have to keep it handy,” he said.
The good news is, WAPA is confident the outages will be much less frequent going forward. The rash of serious, islandwide outages on St. Thomas were connected to a fuel system problem utility officials think they have dealt with.
“On two leased generators: Nos. 26 and 27, the fuel system was not responding adequately to increased demand for production of electricity,” Kupfer explained. The fuel system deals with propane, which the plant now operates on.
“We have made changes and are very comfortable with how No. 27 has responded to the improvements,” he said, elaborating how the plant plans to switch between generators as demand ramps up, and saying they have better options now. While unit No. 26 still has issues, WAPA no longer relies upon it as much.
“We are definitely in a better place than we were a few weeks ago. … There will definitely be fewer outages going forward,” Kupfer said, adding that the most recent outage was scheduled for maintenance purposes and not the result of a generator failure.
“WAPA strives each day to generate and distribute reliable and affordable electrical service. In recent weeks our efforts have been challenged, but we believe that those days are behind us. We are looking to a brighter future with the opportunity to provide the reliable and affordable service our customers are entitled to, and expect from the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority,” he said.
The high cost of electricity in the USVI is a problem. But at any price, the impact of unreliable power generation is profound. Whatever its satisfactions, vilification and bewailing of the past will not keep the lights on. However WAPA is organized and funded, whoever is at its head, whether it remains public or if it could be privatized, it will need to be fiscally sound to keep the lights on.
Next: What is WAPA’s Fiscal Condition and How Can It Be Solvent for the Long Term?
Previous installments in this series:
Melee and Missed Opportunities: A Short History of WAPA Part I