Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister.
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamas Power & Light’s (BPL) island-wide blackout was caused by a “once in a blue moon” event, a Cabinet minister said yesterday, adding that he was “more comfortable than I’ve ever been” about summer reliability.
Desmond Bannister, minister of works, told Tribune Business that the outage that hit the whole of New Providence in early afternoon was caused by a system short that occurred at BPL’s Skyline location as it moved to tie a new substation at Gladstone and Fire Trail Road into its grid.
Reassuring Bahamian businesses and consumers that the incident does not foreshadow a repeat of the blackout/load shedding marred summer 2019, Mr Bannister said any concerns for the upcoming peak demand period related more to BPL’s transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure than its generation capabilities given the addition of the seven Wartsila and one General Electric (GE) engines.
The minister added that he was “praying” BPL can still exploit still-low global oil prices to bring some relief to customers hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent Crude indices were trading above $25 per barrel as Tribune Business went to press last night, but Mr Bannister said the Minnis Cabinet has authorised BPL and the Ministry of Finance to discuss how much financial support the latter can give.
Speaking to yesterday’s island-wide outage, Mr Bannister said: “What happened is that BPL has a new substation with respect to their summer readiness initiative at Gladstone and Fire Trail Roads. They were transferring from the old sub-station [Skyline] to the new one.
“In the process, they had a challenge. Somebody did something they shouldn’t have done. That caused some kind of flash back in the system that took the whole system out..... It wasn’t a generation issue. It was an unfortunate incident, and I was more concerned about the safety of the people involved because someone could have been killed. Someone may have had a mental shock.”
BPL, in its official statement, said the incident happened as it tried to “isolate the circuit” at the Skyline substation that feeds the old Gladstone Road facility before tying in the new one. A “short” occurred in BPL’s systems as it attempted to do this, plunging New Providence into a blackout lasting at least several hours.
“It was unexpected. It’s the kind of thing that happens when we’re dealing with the challenges we face,” Mr Bannister told Tribune Business. “I don’t expect to see this type of thing in the summer time. It’s the type of thing that happens once in a blue moon.
“The only concern we have with the summer is transmission and distribution issues. We feel more comfortable going into the summer than we’ve ever been.” While BPL’s generation woes may have been sold by last year’s near-$130m investment, its aged T&D infrastructure remains vulnerable as $225m in financing that was anticipated to be raised through its rate reduction bond issue that has yet to be placed.
Describing BPL’s revenue and financial position as “entirely unsatisfactory”, Mr Bannister said the utility had been given the go-ahead to enter talks with the Ministry of Finance to see how much financial assistance the latter can provide to enable it to exploit global oil prices via its oil purchases.
“Cabinet has given them and the Ministry of Finance authorisation to discuss their challenges,” he added, “and we anticipate they’re going to be able to make some accommodation. It’s going to be a matter of Finance and BPL getting together and putting figures together, and determining how much support they will get from the Government, but the policy decision to assist by Cabinet has been made.
“I’m just praying we are fully able to take advantage of the situation before oil prices rise. It would be a wonderful advantage for all of us, and make you and me a lot happier when we get our bills. It will make a huge difference when we look at what we’re buying fuel at now. If BPL can tap into this market now that is going to be a win for us all.”