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Paradise in the dark: Where Americans endure continuous power outages

Scripps National Correspondent Amber Strong looks into climate change's impact on the Caribbean islands and the race to find a solution.
Paradise in the dark: Where Americans go 'weeks' without electricity
Posted at 8:47 PM, Jun 01, 2023

The U.S. Virgin Islands are a paradise rich with crystal-clear waters and even richer in culture. But residents there say there's a price to paradise.

Catastrophic storms and power outages cripple daily life and often leave the 100,000 Americans who call it home in the dark, sometimes even when there are no storms.

Residents say it's no surprise to go hours or days without power, even weeks after a major storm.

A former senator who has led protests against the territory's only power supplier says the Water and Power Authority, or WAPA, is unreliable, with regular blackouts and unpredictable costs.

"We pay the highest rates under the U.S. flag, higher than Hawaii, higher than Puerto Rico, higher than the Mariana Islands, and Guam," said Clarence Payne.

In 2022, the cost of power there was about 41 cents per kilowatt hour, three times the cost of power on the mainland.

Payne says the price of power plus the overall cost of living make things difficult for many.

"I moved back home to the Virgin Islands in 2007. I met a person who had three jobs. Three jobs," said Payne.

Decades of mismanagement and costly business deals have led to millions of dollars in debt for the partially government, partially private WAPA. Payne says that's part of the problem, calling for federal oversight.

"There's a lot of back and forth: Who's in charge of what, who's gonna fund what, who's responsible for what — it's so so much to unravel," said Payne.

Christopher Burgess, director of the Island Energy Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute, has studied power in the Caribbean and says the fact that the U.S. Virgin Islands have no connection to major power grids on the mainland adds to the problem.

"They have to generate their own power. And for decades and decades, that's been by burning diesel, heavy fuel, oil and, most recently, propane," said Burgess.

This leads to costs that are volatile and unpredictable, especially since the island's refinery temporarily closed in 2012 and again in 2021 after a damning U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report.

That, plus the ever-growing threat of climate change, makes the need for action vital.

SEE MORE: Unexpected weather in parts of the US as summer season approaches

"The volatility and the strength of cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes in in the North Atlantic is threatening, and sea level rise along with that really puts a lot of pressure on infrastructure in the islands," said Burgess.

It's all a reality that has plagued current Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.'s time in office.

"WAPA has a legacy of being hated, and I think I get a lot of that grief because I have made a concerted effort to fix it," said Bryan.

Bryan says he doesn't want the federal government's oversight, saying that as one of two Black governors in the U.S., he feels compelled to figure it out.

SCRIPPS NEWS' AMBER STRONG: Taken everything that you've learned, are you ready for the next big storm, or the next two big storms?

GOV. ALBERT BRYAN JR.: I think we're prepared now for another storm. We have a lot of the infrastructure in place, but every day we get a little bit stronger.

For the Bryan administration in the U.S. Virgin Islands, solar power represents the future.

Kyle Fleming, the island's director of energy, walks a line as a liaison between the governor's office and the power company, serving as chairman of WAPA's governing board.

Installing solar takes a lot of consideration; there's the location, the panels, then batteries to store all of that power during off hours. The system also has to be capable of withstanding damage.

"This system actually survived the storm, which we're actually very impressed by," Fleming said. "We saw that there were different systems elsewhere across the territory that didn't work out so well. What we've noticed is that the material choice really goes a long way."

It's a learning game many local businesses have taken into their own hands.

Peggy Hunt of the Virgin Islands Montessori school says it was the seemingly little things that forced their 12-acre school to invest in solar and high-powered generators.

"You have to have water. That's the thing that you need when you run schools," she said. "You think about computers, you think about lights, you think about air conditioning, but you need to be able to flush toilets and drink water."

In 2007, they installed their first solar project, eventually building an outdoor gymnasium with a rooftop of solar panels and adding solar panels to various buildings throughout the campus.

"We've gone from maybe, right now, we'd probably be at about $100,000 a year in WAPA expenses for just electricity, and we're at about $20,000. So you know, we continue to raise our consumption, so we have to keep adding solar panels to keep up with our consumption because the school's growing," Hunt said. "But that's a significant savings of $80,000 a year that we can put back to doing something that's more directly impacted to the kids instead of solely keeping the school running."

From the grey water cisterns to benches made from telephone polls destroyed in the storm, the entire school is set up in a way to practice what they teach. If the children and solar are the future, the students might as well learn how it all works.

"In that first array we did blend it in with the classroom and had web-based data that the solar panels would put out," Hunt said. "So I actually had one little kid who was just the best, and he would come down like once a week and say, 'Miss Peggy, here's my graph. This is what's going on with all of these things.'"

The school used grants and loans to cover much of the costs.

SEE MORE: Puerto Rico Is Still In An Energy Crisis

While the upfront investment for solar on an individual level is cheaper than ever, it's still about $15,000 for a household — a price tag not remotely affordable for most residents.

Bryan says they hope to subsidize costs for eligible residents, with 200 families on the list so far.

"We have a 1% interest loan that we issue to you, and you pay it like you're paying the light bill. But you get a total photovoltaic system with batteries on your house, so you're totally off the grid," he said.

But all that takes a buy in from residents who say they've heard it all before.

STRONG: How do you rebuild that trust from people who say we've heard this before?

FLEMING: I think the key thing is building confidence through smaller increments. While we have a lot of big wind projects like our utility scale renewables, and we're currently going through a major resolution with our propane fuel supply, those are big wins. But we're also still looking at the smaller wins along the way.

In a statement to Scripps News, WAPA's new CEO Andrew Smith says those little changes include increasing the fleet availability so WAPA service providers can get to power outages faster, and negotiating purchasing agreements for wind and solar. He also says he wants to build transparency, saying, "WAPA speaks openly, and plainly about WAPA, both good and bad, in all public forums. Our Board meetings are public, our Public Services Commission hearings are public."

Payne likes the idea of independence, but says he will continue to sound the alarm until change happens and the entire country recognizes the issues impacting their fellow Americans.

"We have to continue to talk about it. Press the issue," he said. "I've written a lot of editorials about it. Because I think people on the outside say, 'Oh, this is happening? Really?'"

Bryan is pressing forward, recently working with the power company to pay off past debt to the tune of $145 million. That deal also allows seizure of the propane supply infrastructure from an outside company, filling the gaps where solar cannot for now.

"Today, what I see, what fuels me, is the opportunity to do something that will change the Virgin Islands generationally," he said. "Our goal really is to be able to be fossil fuel free, which is a very lofty goal for an island like this. But we're going to come really close to being able to do it. We want to be No. 1 in America in terms of using renewables to power our paradise."

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that citizens go weeks without power. While powerful storms have caused weekslong outages in the past, power outages in the USVI typically last for hours or days.

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