The federal government is doing all it can to aid and assist all of those on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have been so impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The Department of Energy (DOE) is proud to be part of that mission, and deploying more resources this weekend.

Before Maria struck, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) had started recovery efforts following Hurricane Irma. Maria put the USVI grid down again, and DOE’s Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) moved quickly to answer the call. In coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), DOE’s WAPA deployed and prepositioned an eight-member advance team on Puerto Rico ahead of Hurricane Maria to ensure immediate response and assistance with power restoration after the storm.

The advance team provided preliminary assistance to Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and FEMA after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The next day, the advance team flew to St. Thomas to assist the U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority in cleaning up, repairing and restoring the local energy grid.

“In all of my years of experience in the electric utility trade, I have never observed this amount of electric utility infrastructure damage,” said Will Schnyer, a former linemen who serves as a Safety Manager for DOE WAPA line crews in the Rocky Mountain region. “Every bit of the island's overhead and underground electric system was impacted and needs to be repaired or replaced,” said Schnyer. “Thankfully DOE’s WAPA staff is always willing to respond when natural disasters impact a power system. We do it for ourselves and our customers, and we are doing it for St. Thomas now.”

Another wave of DOE WAPA linemen and equipment will arrive this weekend to continue the restoration on the island’s rugged hillsides just outside the cities.

WAPA work done on St. Thomas in September 2017
Photo courtesy WAPA

Planning, expertise: Keys to restoration

As the first contingent of off-island support, WAPA sat down with the Authority’s experts on Sept. 23 to learn from the damage assessments, understand the Authority’s restoration plan and offer manpower to support the Authority’s efforts.

“We have extensive transmission experience, which is a critical element in assisting VIWAPA in energizing substations, as well as energizing the submarine cable from St. Thomas to St. John,” said Schnyer.

Stepping through the repair process to restore power
Photo courtesy WAPA

Stepping through repair process

The two WAPAs—Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority and Western Area Power Administration—teamed up and rolled out, Sept. 24, to begin work on St. Thomas’ 34.5-kilovolt transmission system, the backbone of the island’s grid. Restoration order is important in bringing the system back up.

The Randolph Harley powerplant is ready to run and awaiting the transmission system repairs. Transmission lines are like the backbone of an electrical system transporting energy longer distances before the voltage is stepped down for distribution lines to deliver the power to homes and businesses. The repairs to the transmission system will take significant time.

“DOE’s WAPA crew is pleased it can, in some small way, be a part of this FEMA-led assistance,” said Schnyer. “This is not just power restoration work. This effort is different, and much greater. It is a humanitarian effort. These islanders have been severely crippled by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes. This has never happened. We now have the privilege of helping them get back on their feet.”

WAPA team working together to restore power on St. Thomas
Photo courtesy WAPA

Guest Author, Jen Neville

Jen Neville is a Public Affairs Specialist for DOE’s Western Area Power Administration. Jen tells the stories of the valuable services provided by a federal power marketing administration to communities in the West. She covers topics like high-voltage transmission, power marketing and utility industry changes. Jen is constantly curious, and focused on highlighting the expertise WAPA employees bring to the energy industry.