By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Grand Bahama Power Company yesterday said the extra $6m-$10m it invested in strengthening its network over the past two years "really paid off" during Hurricane Dorian.
Dave McGregor, the utility's chief executive, told Tribune Business that damage to its transmission and distribution (T&D) network would be "substantially less" than the near-$28m cost incurred to rebuild it following Hurricane Matthew due to the system "hardening" measures implemented over the past three years since that storm.
He revealed that this had reduced the time taken to restore electricity services by a whole week, and that all Freeport's communities and subdivisions should be "energised" by week's end even if individual homes and businesses cannot yet be restored to the grid because of flood damages.
Disclosing that GB Power was "making quite extraordinary progress" in its post-Dorian restoration efforts, Mr McGregor said the category five storm had been a rain/flooding rather than wind damages event for the utility and its infrastructure assets.
Besides the loss of "most" of its 92-strong vehicle fleet in Dorian's storm surge, the GB Power chief said both its Peel Street generation plant and 50 percent of its substations were flooded out - with two of the latter submerged in four feet of sea water.
With Peel Street's 50 megawatts (MW) of generation capacity likely to be lost for months, Mr McGregor revealed that GB Power would rent eight MW of rental generation capacity from Aggreko, the same supplier used by Bahamas Power & Light (BPL), to eliminate the possibility of any load shedding.
While GB Power's newer West Sunrise plant remains fully operational at 48 MW, and peak customer demand currently sits at 30 MW, it wants to have sufficient back-up for when individual engines were taken out of service for scheduled maintenance.
Confirming that power has been restored to more than 90 percent of dry homes in non-flooded areas, Mr McGregor said GB Power's focus was now shifting to those areas of Freeport and West End that had sustained water damage during Dorian.
He acknowledged that the utility's customer base was likely to be less than the 19,000 pre-Dorian as some businesses never re-open and homeowners opt to leave the island, estimating there would be "a few thousand we will not see for quite a while".
"We're getting there day by day," Mr McGregor told Tribune Business of GB Power's storm restoration efforts. "We're making quite extraordinary progress. We're doing really, really well and a lot of lights are on in Freeport.
"Now we're moving into the low-lying areas of Freeport; a number of subdivisions that were very badly flooded. Our approach was focused on the areas that were least damages and least flooded, and getting them back on, as well as a focus on the big industrials."
Mr McGregor said the likes of the Freeport Container Port, Polymers International and Pharmachem were all back on GB Power's grid and "ramping up production" as part of a plan to get residents back to work. The utility has also completed restoring energy to essential services such as the police, hospital and relief agencies.
Explaining that GB Power's restoration efforts will now be moving "one home at a time rather than one street at a time", he added: "We're going into those wet areas where many of the homes are flooded and are being dried out, and need to be cleared by electrical inspectors before we can switch them on.
"We have energy on in all neighbourhoods bar three, and one of those should be done by [last] night. Somebody has to be last, unfortunately..... There will be power on lines in all streets in Freeport by the end of this week." Mr McGregor identified the Heritage and Pioneer's Way subdivisions as being among the last to get re-energised.
He added, though, that it was "a different story" in east Grand Bahama - the area hit hardest by Dorian. Mr McGregor said GB Power was "for now" not rebuilding its main transmission line to the area, which had only provided it with around 300 customers pre-storm.
With that number now "considerably less", Mr McGregor said the utility will work with the Government and relief agencies to determine where communities and persons are now located and seek to provide appropriate localised energy solutions such as solar and battery power.
Still, he said that GB Power's ability to rebound quickly outside of east Grand Bahama showed that the utility had learned the lessons from Hurricane Matthew's devastation of its T&D grid in October 2016.
"Our system held up really well in the wind," Mr McGregor told Tribune Business. "Over the last few years we've been hardening our system after Matthew, putting in stronger poles, and it really paid off.
"We rebuilt the system better, we rebuilt the system stronger, and continued to invest $3-$5m extra for the last two years, over and above what we normally invest, to further strengthen the system. That shortened the outage time by one week. On the T&D system, the wires, the poles and the transformers, [the costs] will be substantially less than Matthew."
Mr McGregor said the major difference between Dorian and Matthew was the flooding of GB Power's Peel Street generation plant, which was inundated by three to four feet of storm surge. While this facility is insured, the GB Power chief said it is likely to be out for months, forcing the company to turn to rental generation as a safety measure.
"Peel Street was worth about 50 MW to us," he told Tribune Business. "Our current peak is 30 MW. We have enough generation at our West Sunrise plant to cover that for a while yet, but will be bringing in some Aggreko generation to make sure we don't run into load shedding while we see what the Peel Street solution is - a like-for-like rebuild, or something different.
"We're going to get 8 MW in to begin with in a week, as load shedding is something we're keen to avoid." While West Sunrise provides 48 MW, Mr McGregor said its output dropped to 40 MW when one unit is taken off-line for scheduled maintenance - as is due to happen soon.
Emphasising that he did not want to repeat the problems afflicting New Providence on Grand Bahama, Mr McGregor said the utility - which is 100 percent owned by Canadian giant, Emera - started ordering teams and repair equipment from its affiliates "during the storm".
Praising GB Power staff for the "amazing" work done in restoring the company's four Dorian-damaged substations, two of which were submerged in four feet of sea water, Mr McGregor said the utility was likely to end up with less than its 19,000 pre-Dorian customers as some businesses and homeowners will never return.
"We don't have a good feel for it. Is it 15,000? Is it 12,000? We don't know. I'm imagining it's going to be a few thousand customers we're not going to see for quite a while, but we'll be focusing on getting everyone going - every business and home that's there," he told Tribune Business.
With GB Power awaiting environmental clearance to make the hoped-for move back into its headquarters building today, after it was flooded by two feet of water, Mr McGregor said the company would not "over burden" customers despite the financial hit it has suffered itself.
"We're running a lot of expenses, and revenues are down," he added. "It's not a good place to be, but we have a track record of innovating our way out of higher costs, reduced revenues and maximising insurance payouts, and not over-burdening customers dealing with the after-affects of the worst hurricane ever seen."