By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister has pledged that New Providence will “never go through a summer like this again” where the island was held captive daily by Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) blackouts.
Desmond Bannister, minister of works, voiced optimism to Tribune Business that the regular three-hour load shedding endured by residents and businesses for months should be “virtually eliminated fairly shortly”.
He based his assessment on fall and winter’s expected cooler temperatures, which should reduce energy demand, coupled with the installation of BPL’s new 132 megawatts (MW) of additional generation capacity via the Wartsila engines.
While many Bahamians and residents are unlikely to share Mr Bannister’s upbeat analysis until it is matched by the on-ground reality, the minister said the state-owned utility monopoly had by last week restored all the New Providence communities it had cut-off during flooding associated with Hurricane Dorian.
Ministry of Works inspectors were subsequently required to make sure it was safe to restore power to those affected, with the minister expressing hope that BPL’s new generation capacity will “come online within the next three months”.
“We’re never going to go through a summer like the one we went through again,” Mr Bannister told Tribune Business in a recent interview. “This country will never go through that again, and it’s my job to make sure that happens.
“We hope there’s going to be a lighter load with the temperature changing; we anticipate the loads will be lighter, and load shedding will be less frequent. Right now, we expect that load shedding will be virtually eliminated fairly shortly.
“BPL is preparing for the engines coming in, that are here already, and they should come online in the next three months and whatever additional power it may be looking at. If there are additional needs we will look at additional power. The first order of business is to install these engines, complete the installation.”
Mr Bannister’s comments indicate that no immediate solution to New Providence’s energy generation crisis will be forthcoming, with the government placing its faith in a combination of reduced fall/winter demand and the Wartsila engines to reduce and, eventually, end load shedding.
However, Paul Maynard, the Bahamas Electrical Workers Union’s (BEWU) president, reiterated to Tribune Business his expectations that load shedding in Nassau and the rest of the island will last until November and the start of the peak winter tourism season with the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Put it in your book. It’s load shedding until November,” Mr Maynard told Tribune Business. “I told you they were going to be doing it all summer. Every day now it’s the same thing. It is what it is.”
Much now depends on how quickly the Wartsila engines can be installed, tested and brought online, with Mr Maynard among those sceptical that the December deadline for completing this will be met.
The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Dorian on Abaco and Grand Bahama has caused some distraction from the daily misery inflicted by BPL on New Providence households and the private sector, although the utility’s struggles are unlikely to be forgotten - especially as they might continue for some months to come.
Mr Bannister told Tribune Business that Dorian-related flooding, as New Providence caught the storm’s outer tropical storm-force winds and rain bands, resulted in several communities being disconnected from the BPL grid as a safeguard against electrocution and other hazards.
“There was extensive flooding throughout New Providence,” the minister recalled of the storm’s early September passage. “In some of the areas within my constituency there was 18 inches of water. It impacted many, many communities and BPL had challenges as a result with the provision of power.
“People were asking BPL to disconnect the power in many of those areas. They did so because there were fears that water would reach so high in people’s homes that electricity could become a hazard.
“And with many of those consumers BPL disconnected, to reconnect power they had to do a thorough inspection to ensure lines were not down. Where they were they had to get Ministry of Works inspectors in to check everything was OK before they turned the power on. All of New Providence is back on now.”
BPL, which had previously suggested New Providence’s energy generation capacity shortfall would be resolved by end-August/early September, last night set late September as the new timeline for restoring 44 MW at its Blue Hills power plant to service.
The utility, which is continuing to focus on two generation units, said the replacement diesel starting engine for the first turbine - which can produce a maximum 23 MW - had arrived yesterday and should be installed by mid-week.
This, BPL added, will enable it to restart the unit and its testing, with the state-owned monopoly voicing hope that it could be back in service by the final week in September.
As for the other 21 MW unit, BPL said two generator specialists had arrived yesterday to help with “continued troubleshooting” of the interface with the diesel engine. This will further analysis of the vibration issue preventing this unit from going to full power supply, with September 25 tentatively set as the date for completion depending on the pace of progress.
“We continue to concentrate efforts on these two units at Blue Hills power station because together they have a total output of 44 MW, which more than makes up the generation deficit we face during peak energy consumption hours. That generation deficit is what has led to the heavy load shedding,” BPL confirmed.
The present reality is that BPL still faces an estimated 30 MW generation capacity shortfall compared to yesterday’s 22.2 MW “gap”, which will necessitate continued three-hour load shedding should consumer demand hit expectations.
“Our current availability is 212.8 MW against an expected day peak of 230 MW and an expected evening peak of 235 MW,” BPL added. Almost half its New Providence generation capacity continues to be provided by 105 MW of rental supply from Aggreko.
Whitney Heastie, BPL’s chief executive, admitted last month that the utility had given itself a wafer-thin margin to meet New Providence’s 250 MW peak summer demand with only 270-280 MW of generation available.
While he argued that the extent of the failure at the Blue Hills power plant, which resulted in three generation units being lost simultaneously, could not have been predicted, Mr Heastie also admitted that some of BPL’s aged infrastructure was at least 30 to 40 years-old - a factor that suggested regular maintenance/repairs would be required.
Mr Heastie confessed that BPL knew it was “walking a tightrope” for summer 2019, which many observers will interpret as an admission that BPL failed to adequately plan for summer demand and all possible scenarios.
With the loss of 70 MW in generation capacity at Blue Hills, the BPL chief executive admitted then that the utility only currently has 210 MW of generation capacity to meet 250 MW peak demand in the Bahamian capital.
He also admitted that BPL’s “decaying” generation fleet contains equipment where parts cannot be procured and have to be obtained exclusively from manufacturers. thereby making engine breakdowns and off-line maintenance a near 100 percent certainty.
Mr Heastie said the energy monopoly is “on the edge, on the cliff” virtually every day.