WAPA in denial at our expense

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On July 29, 2013, Karl Knight, in his capacity as member of the WAPA' Governing Board, received a formal letter from a source he was already familiar with. The letter was later copied to WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge, Sen. Craig Barshinger and Delegate to Congress Donna Christiansen.

But before we get to the letter and what followed after that, let's step back and put this little happening in perspective: When it comes to WAPA and the energy debate, there are some interesting stories going around, most of them unsubstantiated and often started by a rumor and then quickly morphed into given facts overnight. But overall, the many years of debate has served as a hand-on education for all Virgin Islanders and underscores the fact that electric power is the life blood of our society and that our wellbeing and prosperity depend on its price and availability.

We quickly learned that sending hundreds of millions of dollars off Island to pay for expensive fuel is paralyzing our economy, and many people began to see the importance of keeping this money here by producing our own fuel, and by doing that, we could create many new jobs at all skill levels - jobs that would pay a salary that easily would counter the costs of converting to locally fueled power generation, even if the price of electricity would remain relatively high to begin with.

And believe me, WAPA's well-educated work force would be first in line for these new jobs, many of them requiring the technical skills this work force already has.

Thus two goals could be accomplished simultaneously: independence of world market price fluctuation and a whole lot more money not leaving the territory but instead being spent in our local economy.

Everybody agrees that there is abundance of energy right here, and the technology needed to turn it into good stable energy is well established and can be seen in action all over the globe, especially in small, geographically isolated societies like ours.

However, only a few of our elected leaders understand the multitude of benefits that comes with aiming at being 100 percent self-sufficient with fuels for power generation.

Price stability is as important as the price itself, and shifting from one imported fossil fuel to another maintains our dependency on events that are beyond our control and does nothing to harness volatility.

Those of us who have a clear vision - or at least we think so - of what lies in wait for small isolated places like ours 10 to 20 or 50 years down the road keep a wary eye on the decisions taken by the people we have chosen to lead us, and, as we saw with the Alpine debacle, a strong measure of skepticism can be a healthy part of democracy.

On Dec. 11, Senator Barshinger is hosting an all-day round table meeting at the UVI campus on St. Croix. The issue - you guessed it - is "The Future of Energy in the V.I." and more specifically Bill 13-1086 or the Omnibus Energy Plan.

Many good people will have a chance to give their input and comments and many well-substantiated ideas will be heard.

However, seeing how all earlier attempts to challenge WAPA Status Quo have been unsuccessful, Director Hodge, with the backing of Gov. John deJongh, will most likely win the argument again.

The letter Karl Knight received was signed by Brian Kuhn, Managing Partner of Associated Wind Developers, and it reads like a gift from heaven.

Mr. Kuhn is a "Renewable Energy and Business" graduate from University of Massachusetts in 1977, 20 years before the term "Green" became mainstream. He has paid numerous visits to the Virgin Islands. His last visit was to give expert testimony in the Senate on June 11 this year, where he made it very clear that no technical issues stood in the way of achieving 100 percent penetration of renewable energy sources into our local grid.

Mr. Kuhn's letter is in many ways an extension of his June 11 testimony but it is shaped as a proposal - with no obligations and fully paid for with a $300,000 grant from USDA. Associated Wind Developers in partnership with the ABB Group (by far the world's biggest "Smart Grid" engineering and manufacturing corporation) offered to map out the WAPA grid and create a model that would show WAPA how to achieve unlimited penetration of renewables into the system.

All this would be done while working closely with WAPA and the Energy Office.

Once the computer model was created it would work like an advanced spreadsheet, and WAPA would be able test various scenarios on it to see how it affects the stability of the grid, and finally it would offer solutions to remedy the exposed weaknesses in the system.

What happened next is a mystery at best and at the very least requires some sort of explanation from Director Hodge, who not only chose to ignore this proposal, but also never bothered to meet face to face with Mr. Kuhn or any of his associates.

Are you puzzled? You will be, even more so, when you learn that WAPA instead contracted KEMA Consulting Services for a study on the impact to the grid of adding big solar installations to the existing grid and spent $230,990 of ratepayers money for the study.

This same KEMA study also concluded that no more than 15 to 20 percent unstable renewables could be added to the grid before it becomes unstable.

Based on the KEMA study, Director Hodge expressed his deep concern for the stability issue at a WAPA board meeting late August, saying that there is "a little bit of concern" that between the renewable projects already contracted and home net-metering systems, the grid may be pushing the limit of what it can handle.

"But hopefully we'll be fine."

Director Hodge went on to say: "The problem we have, to be honest, is that we have too many people trying to design one system."

Another board member, Jerry Groner chimed in: "It's a regulatory house that's sort of cobbled together by people who don't particularly have the depth of knowledge and skill sets to do it. And it's shaky."

So what would motivate WAPA's board to reject a FREE, no obligation, study that could be used over and over whenever modifications, new loads or additional unstable power was to be added to the grid? This model would save both time and money and would make planning a breeze.

Instead the WAPA Governing Board decided to spend ratepayer's money for a study that points out the grid's limitations without offering any solutions.

Let's have a look at ABB and KEMA.

ABB, headquarters in Switzerland, employs 150,000 people and is a giant, billion dollar corporation with projects and manufacturing facilities in more than 100 countries. They are smart grid specialists and manufacture all the components involved in the new world of renewable energy. Their research facilities provide their engineers and consultants with the latest technology, which allows them to offer turnkey systems and solutions to grids of all sizes.

KEMA, based in Holland, is strictly a consulting company and has offices in 20 countries around the world. They provide operational support and testing and certification services. They have no experience in micro grids and/or renewable power and there are no known reference cases where KEMA has been contracted to do mapping or engineering for micro grids.

Why did WAPA go with KEMA? Seen from WAPA's point of view, the ABB model could be viewed as a tool for those who would like to break up WAPA's monopoly on electric power generation.

- Steffen Larsen, St. Croix

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