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WAPA Transformers Headed to Ground Level


WAPA plans to buy ground-level transformers, getting fragile equipment off power poles. (Detail of screenshot from livefeed)

The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority’s governing board signed off on a $4 million part of the plan to get power transformers off utility poles. In addition to improving the view, ground-level transformers are less likely to be damaged by severe weather events, officials said at the board’s meeting Thursday.

The familiar, if unsightly, grey cylinders overhead would be replaced by roadside metal boxes mounted on slabs of concrete, according to WAPA engineers.

Transformers are vital pieces in electricity distribution, helping convert the 25,000 volts running from the power generator through the line to the 120 volts in the territory’s wall sockets. When they break, the power goes out.

Electrical equipment experts at the Thursday board meeting said the ground-level transformers would be much better in storms and are far easier to access when repairs are needed. No expensive and dangerous bucket trucks would be needed.

Of the 117 transformers ordered, 105 are bound for St. Croix and 12 for St. Thomas, covering areas in Hannah’s Rest, Queen Mary Highway, Frederiksted, and between Charlotte Amalie and Cyril E. King Airport.

The $4,028,152.76 contract with Miami-based PECO International Electric is for transformers constructed by Cleveland-based Easton. An Easton representative confirmed the transformers were weather resistant. WAPA experts said even if they were damaged in a severe storm, the ground-level transformers would require less repair cost and recovery time than the current pole-mounted transformers.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will supply funding for 90 percent of the project, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development funding the remaining 10 percent.

The transformers, likely to arrive in 18 months, are part of the vast, decade old undertaking of putting the Virgin Islands’ power lines underground.

Complicating things, somehow, the Authority acquired too many 277/480 transformers — a type it has no current use for. WAPA experts said they were considering selling the equipment but, given they were purchased with federal money, would need to get approval from Washington.

“We have a ton of 277/480s that we just simply can’t use on our system,” said Ashley Bryan, the Authority’s chief operating officer. WAPA likely acquired the unusable transformers in the chaotic days following the 2017 hurricanes. No one at the meeting Thursday claimed to know why the transformers were purchased but some said it was a difficult time for the Authority. “Someone ordered them and we wound up with a large surplus of them,” Bryan concluded.

At the same meeting, the WAPA board also voted to approve a contract with Haugland V.I., in the amount of $2,232,265, for the purchase and installation of electrical cable and equipment for the underground electrical construction project. Undergrounding electrical cables is a key component of hardening the Authority’s electrical grid and making it more resilient against natural disasters and other destructive events, WAPA officials said.

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