By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
BAHAMAS Power & Light (BPL) is “nowhere close to where we want to be on any island”, its chief executive has admitted, as it seeks to avoid a repeat of last summer’s outages in Nassau and three other markets.
Whitney Heastie told Tribune Business that BPL has three to four months to accomplish numerous upgrades, and get itself “in a lot better shape” for summer 2018, on New Providence, Abaco, Exuma and Bimini.
He explained that, together with chief operating officer Christina Alston, he had been targeting “some of the low hanging fruit” in a bid to improve BPL customer experience and win back customer confidence that it can deliver reliable electricity supply. Mr Heastie, though, conceded that BPL was “not out of the woods yet” on Abaco despite restoring the island’s power last Tuesday morning following a four-day period where residents were subjected to a rolling series of ‘load shedding’.
While the main Wilson City power plant was again operational, the BPL chief executive said it was “not in a great situation” as one of the two water pumps flown in to address the initial problem with the cooling system was not working.
This meant the plant is again running without a back-up pump, the same situation that contributed to the four-day shut down, with BPL technicians working to identify and solve the second unit’s issues.
A message purporting to come from BPL, addressed to Abaco residents, had warned: “As the electricity was fully restored after the installment of the new part, we are sorry to let you all know that we are now facing more difficulties which are much more serious than the one before.
“More outages will occur for the span of a few weeks as we will be trying our best to deal with the problems. We are asking for your patience and co-operation for the time being. Thank you.”
This was circulated across social media platforms, but Mr Heastie said it was never issued by BPL and was untrue. “That’s not authentic. I just learned of that notice,” he told Tribune Business.
“We did have some issues a week ago last Friday, when the cooling system went down, but the pump was brought in Monday and we restored power to all residents by Tuesday morning.
“Subsequent to that, Thursday morning we had further complications with the pump we brought in. The fault was traced to the electrical cable to the motor of those pumps. The cable was replaced and the pumps started back-up that night, and we were fully restored as of 1am [Friday].”
Mr Heastie then revealed that BPL’s immediate difficulties on Abaco are not over, given that one of the two pumps flown into the island last Monday is not operational.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “We had two pumps flown in last Monday night, and only one of the pumps was found to be good. We’re still having issues with that second pump.
“Right now, we’re managing with no back-up, which is not a good situation to be in. We’re still trouble-shooting and diagnosing it.”
Abaco’s woes are typical of the problems increasingly encountered across BPL’s network, which has been starved of capital investment and upgrades due to the utility’s persistent financial problems, which have often resulted in annual losses exceeding $20 million or more.
Mr Heastie said Abaco, together with New Providence, Bimini and Exuma, should fare much better in terms of reliability this summer when compared to 2017 provided BPL accomplishes everything set out in its summer readiness programme.
“What I would like to think is we will be a whole lot better than we were in 2017 on those four islands,” the BPL chief executive told Tribune Business. “We recognise that we’re not close to where we want to be on any island.
“Given the short time Christina and I have been in the chair, we wanted to get some of the low hanging fruit behind us. We’re consistently working on mitigating system problems to get us to world-class standards of reliability.
“If we get all these things identified done in the next three-four months, we’ll be in a whole lot better shape than last year.”
Mr Heastie said none of the four islands targeted by BPL for its summer programme were suffering from the same problem, with the issues either relating to generation, transmission and distribution (T&D) or a combination of the two.
He added that Abaco was “top of the list” because of the issues it had experienced last summer, coupled with the island being BPL’s largest Family Island market with around 8,000 customers. BPL executives met with James Albury, the south and central Abaco MP, and parliamentary secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, to go through their plans several weeks ago.
Mr Heastie said BPL had “ample generation capacity” to serve mainland Abaco and the cays, and was able to produce 60 Mega Watts (MW) compared to a summer peak of around 26 MW.
Instead, the problems lay on the transmission and distribution (T&D) side. He added that foreign consultants had conducted studies over the past four to five months to identify “soft spots” in BPL’s systems, and the utility was now forming teams and “fully fleshing out work plans” to implement their recommendations before end-June.
As for Bimini, Mr Heastie said BPL has “some challenges” on both generation and T&D. “We know we’re short on generation,” he told Tribune Business. “We don’t have sufficient capacity to carry the summer peak, so we’re bringing in temporary generation to shore up the assets we have on the ground.”
The BPL chief said the submarine cable supplying the Bimini Bay resort “has been compromised a number of times”, so the utility was looking at upgrading its overhead power lines connecting the resort’s southern end to its generating plant.
Mr Heastie said New Providence’s 400 MW of generating capacity far exceeded the summer peak demand of 250 MW, so BPL had been focusing on maintenance over the last several months to ensure all engines at its Clifton Pier and Blue Hills plans would be available.
He added that not all the capital’s power problems were related to generation, suggesting they lay more on the T&D side through a failure to upgrade system circuits to take care of an increased load demand as communities expanded.
Mr Heastie said BPL needed to better-protect its circuits, and ensure that a car taking out an electricity pole did not “take out the entire island” by improving system resiliency.
Exuma’s problems, meanwhile, related solely to generation through a lack of maintenance. Mr Heastie said three of the island’s four engines had been overhauled, and Exuma “should be good” when the last one is completed.
The BPL chief said Abaco’s upgrades would cost $5 million alone, while the numbers for the other three islands are still being worked up.