April 12, 2006 — The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority and the Public Services Commission were once again poised for battle during a Wednesday evening hearing of the Senate Government Operations and Consumer Protection Committee on St. Croix. And while there was posturing on both sides, there was also the recognition that action had to be taken to address WAPA's mounting financial crisis.
Raymond Williams, vice chairman of the PSC, said that the problems WAPA had were of its own making.
Daryl Lynch, chairman of WAPA's board of governors, said that the PSC made it hard on consumers, too, by assessing WAPA over $1.5 million.
But representatives of WAPA and the PSC both said they did not want to get into a "back-and-forth" at the hearing and wanted to help decrease V.I. residents' steadily increasing power bills.
Sen. Roosevelt David, chair of the committee, said he called the hearing to get behind recent news reports that WAPA was facing a financial crisis (See "WAPA Board Discusses Financial Crisis").
Nellon Bowry, chief financial officer for WAPA, outlined a bleak cash-flow situation for the utility but declined to call it a "crisis." He said that WAPA did have problems, but everyone had to recognize that the fundamental issue was the rising cost of oil.
Boyd Sprehn, PSC legal counsel, made a presentation pointing out areas where the PSC believed WAPA could improve its efficiency.
None of this was new — the committee heard some of the same arguments in May of last year (See "Senate Probes Squabbles Between PSC and WAPA").
But this time there was some agreement, too. Bowry said WAPA was frustrated because more energy conservation was not being practiced, and the government seemed to be one of the major culprits. He said, "We have a government agency who can't pay its bill, and we drive by a ball field and see the lights on all night. There is no change in consumption habits. They just blame Bruno-Vega." [Alberto Bruno-Vega is the executive director of WAPA. He was not at Wednesday's hearing.]
Williams, a former director of the V.I. Energy Office, agreed with Bowry that more had to be done about energy conservation.
Sen. Craig W. Barshinger said that when he became senator he found that air conditioners were being run all night in government buildings. "And no one even knew how to turn them off," he said.
Lynch was asked whether WAPA worked with the Energy Office concerning conservation.
He said that WAPA had approached the Energy Office and asked that an energy audit be conducted through all government buildings, but he was not sure if they had been done.
Sen. Louis P. Hill, vice chair of the committee, said he wanted to introduce a bill making solar water heaters mandatory in all new buildings where hot water is used. Solar water heaters, though more expensive to purchase, produce significant savings by generally running without power from WAPA.
Williams said he personally liked that idea. Bowry said he also thought it was a good option, but instead suggested setting energy-efficiency goals, so if a builder wanted to use a different method to be efficient he could.
However, residents cannot expect any relief soon. Bowry said, "Our cash-flow deficiency is worsening even as I speak. Yesterday, we received a letter from Hovensa saying oil prices were going up again."
Oil prices have been rising steadily during the last week and are at almost $70 a barrel. Not one speaker at the hearing predicted that oil prices will go down, while several predicted they would continue to climb.
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