Barely Enough Power
Roatan’s Energy Crisis

September 1st, 2004
by Thomas Tomczyk


v2-11-News-Roatan's Energy Crisis As the island grows the issue of dependable power becomes more and more critical. For two weeks in July, Roatan was faced with a series of unscheduled blackouts, sometimes as many as five times in one day, for as long as eight hours. The unpredictability of doing business on the island proved a challenge to many businesses and individuals.

Rotisseria Aleman was closed for two weeks in July as its owner was forced to take a vacation. When the power went out five consecutive times in one day, his refrigerator compressor burned-out and he lost three batches of chicken due to interrupted roasting. “It was better to take a vacation until RECO figures out what to do,” said Kurt Neudecker, owner of two Rotisseria Aleman restaurants in Los Fuertes. He gave two weeks of paid vacation to his four employees and closed the restaurants. “I lost Lps. 40,000 in sales in July,” said Neudecker.

At the height of summer, Roatan businesses had to either suspend business, or to operate with the possibility of a power outage at any moment. Restaurants couldn’t chill their produce; dentists couldn’t operate their equipment. For a group of dental specialists visiting from La Ceiba, the possibility of loosing power in a middle of a root canal was a scary prospect.

Hundreds of employees spent hours waiting for power to be switched back on. Few businesses are set up to function without power. Still the inconsistency of RECO power had made some businesses decide to invest money in back-up generators. Neudecker has reopened his restaurant, but decided to purchase a $1,000, 12HP Coleman generator as back-up. “I can’t continue to throw chicken into the sea,” said Neudecker.

Bay Islands Voice talked to RECO’s general manager,
Ing. Leonardo Casco about this summer’s energy problems.

Bay Islands Voice: In July, an electrical surge at Eldon’s Supermarket caused light bulbs to explode and cash registers to give-out. What happened?
Leonardo Casco: They [Eldon’s Supermarket] normally don’t hook-up with RECO. They normally just run on their own generators. Their generator broke down, they hooked-up another generator. (…) It’s something that couldn’t happen because we closed or opened a circuit. We had to ration power that week. We had to open the circuit to take some load off. Everybody in French Harbour is disconnected, not just Eldon’s. Then we would connect somebody from a different sector so everybody would have certain amount of power during the day. (…) They sent us a letter saying “you did this to us.” I don’t believe “we did that.” I believe that this is an internal wiring problem. We inspected it [Eldon’s Supermarket] and we found out about a short-circuit that happened a day before that was put out with a fire extinguisher.
B.I.V.: What do you think about some smaller businesses purchasing generators in order to operate?
L.C.: We ideally would like to provide the most reliable service. Our goal is to provide 100% reliability, but we cannot guarantee that. There is always risk involved of service being interrupted. Of course not to the extent of what happened last week.
B.I.V.: What happened during the first week of August?
L.C.: We had different problems. Our initial problem was reduced capacity with engine No. 1 working at 50%. We needed some parts. We had a problem with No. 5, the 1.6 Megawatt generator. That went completely down and we had to order parts for it [fan]. With that, we were working at our limit capacity and still didn’t have to ration power. But, we didn’t have a back-up. Then we started having problems with generator No. 8. [rented from CEMCOL], it needed a major job. We started rationing. And then we started having problems with No. 7. (…) We also had a problem with generator No. 2- it was down. There were mechanical problems, electrical problems, control systems, things like this. We fixed them, everything seems fine and we put the generator back on line. Then when this [one generator] trips, it overloads all the other generators and we lose power completely.
B.I.V.: With all these different problems, is it just coincidence, or perhaps lack of proper maintenance, or planning?
L.C.: There are different levels of maintenance: predictive maintenance, preventive maintenance. These are very sophisticated techniques: infra-red cameras, vibration meters. We don’t have these things.
B.I.V.: Had anything like this happened before at RECO?
L.C.: Actually, there was a point when RECO had only 6 Megawatts capacity, in 1999. Three generators broke down and we were left with only 3 Megawatts capacity.
B.I.V.: Have we seen the worst of power outages this year?
L.C.: I would hope so. I would expect so.
B.I.V.: We have telephone, black and potable water lines running underneath Coxen Hole streets. Why don’t we have underground power lines?
L.C.: We wanted to this. We had several meetings with the [Roatan] municipality. We even had planned out where different types of transformers would be installed. But then we lost communications with the municipality.
B.I.V.: Was it in part because of the price quoted to move the power lines?
L.C.: Perhaps that’s the reason why the municipality just didn’t want us to do the job.
B.I.V.: Is it at all possible to come back and lay the power lines underneath the sidewalks?
L.C.: Yes, of course it is.
B.I.V.: Did you have any recent interest from companies interested in buying RECO?
L.C.: We had a visit from a group from Canada, owners of the Cayman Islands Electrical Company. There was nothing conclusive out of that, just conversations.
B.I.V.: Have the cases of sabotage of RCO property repeated themselves since the case almost a year ago?
L.C.: No, not really. We had some problems last year and we decided to increase our security then. We are a big company and we are exposed to many threats. It’s part of our responsibility- preventing sabotage.

As Roatan is growing, the island’s demand for energy grows even faster. Maximum demand peaks daily between 7:00pm and 7:30pm and has grown from 6.5 to 7 Megawatts over the course of this year. Even more dramatically, the minimum demand has increased 25% over the last year from 3.2 to 4 Megawatts.

During its 12 years of operation RECO has expanded its fleet of diesel generators to seven. They are capable of producing 11.2 Megawatts. Two Dutch Stork-Wartsila 2.0 Megawatt generators were purchased new in 1990. Three CAT 3516B 1.6 Megawatt generators were purchased in 2001 and CAT 3516 engines six and seven: provide 1.4 and 1.0 Megawatt respectively.

To deal with recent generator problems RECO is currently renting an additional 1.6 Megawatt CAT generator from CEMCOL for $25,000 a month. The company is looking into purchasing a 2.5 Megawatt GE generator this year and an additional two over the next two years.

Financing plans are prepared to create an additional supply line from RECO’s plant in Los Fuertes to Coxen Hole; this line is the heaviest used line carrying 70% of the load.

On Utila, Ricardo Flores, general manager of UPCO since December 2003 has been pushing forward with new investments and solutions to “old problems.” Flores came to Utila from La Ceiba where he worked as a manager of a heavy equipment company.

Salt contamination has caused several outages early in 2004, but the company consulted BELCO, RECO and US manufacturers and decided to upgrade a portion of its power line insulation from 15KW to 34KW. About 30% of the company’s high power lines run along the shore and are exposed to an intense salt environment. They been replaced with thicker insulation and dipped in silicon based solution for added resistance. “RECO said they wash their poles with fresh water and haven’t experienced the type of problems we have in Utila,” said Flores.

To generate a maximum capacity of 1.5 Megawatts the company uses two 750KW Cummins diesel generators. UPCO is planning to add another 500KW generator by the end of the year. The peak demand has grown at 15% a year and is currently 1.0 Megawatts during the summer months. Utila’s 9,000 residents have 1,000 accounts and are in 95% connected to UPCO.

In 2005 UPCO plans to install two “hybrid generation” wind turbines at their plant location, 800 inland, in front of Linda’s Wall dive site. The turbines will generate 1.3 Megawatt of power and will be backed-up by the diesel generators. The construction of the 150 feet high wind turbines will take between three and nine months. “The bringing of wind turbines will not increase the price of electricity to the customers,” said Flores.

In parallel to their energy projects, UPCO is undertaking a desalination plant that should be on-line by the end of September. The plant will be capable of pumping up to 250 Gallons per minute. The drinking water will be poured into five gallon plastic bottles and sold throughout the island. “We aren’t sure about the demand yet,” said Flores who estimates that Utilans currently consume 1,500 gallons of drinking water a day.

Things are much simpler on Cayos Cochinos. The 300 island residents and the island’s one resort rely on their own generators for electricity.

On Guanaja this year, BELCO’s energy production spiked as the company was successful in convincing two of the island’s three packing plants to connect to its grid. “We are a pioneer in taking over from ENEE,” says Roger Wood, BELCO’s general manager since 1998.

After Hurricane Mitch, BELCO switched to bigger, more dependable generators. The company purchased two CAT 1,200 KW generators, and two at 600 KW. The last one of these was hooked-up in 2003.

With maximum production capacity of 3,600 KW, the company provides power to 1,300 customers – 95% of Guanaja. Even though the peak demand (1,100 KW) is only a third of capacity, BELCO is already looking into expanding its generating capacity. A 1,600-1,800 KW generator will be put on-line in 2005.

The nine BELCO directors meet monthly to discuss company matters. Last year, BELCO conducted a feasibility study to consider an 800KW wind generator. So far the $1,000,000 price tag is beyond reach. Still the company continues to connect new customers. Every customer counts. By the end of August it should connect six customers in Wilmont Bay and another 11 along the way.

“RECO needs to switch from their Dutch generators. They take too long to rebuild and are very, very, very expensive,” said Wood. “They [also] need to switch to for salt spray insulation on their high tension wires.” In Guanaja a 10 inch thick, 34KW insulation is used. According to Wood, RECO still uses 15KW insulation, 4-5 inches thick and not as resistant to the corroding effect of sea salt.

The one problem the Guanaja Power Company has to deal with comes from nature. Between July and December, during the shrimp packing season, the island is almost sure to suffer power outages. According to Wood, on average once a month a pelican sitting on top of the power poles stretches its wings so far it causes a short-circuit. BELCO, to no avail, tried to protect the poles with metal spikes. Until the shrimp season is over, every time Guanajans loose their power it also means the death of a pelican. [/private]

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