By Frank Whitman
More than two decades of preparation by the Guam Power Authority paid off following Typhoon Mawar’s battering of Guam on May 25.
The agency’s recovery from the devastating effects of the storm was its fastest recovery yet from a storm of that magnitude, according to John Benavente, GPA general manager.
Benavente has been through more than his fair share of the island’s storms. He first joined GPA in 1976, the year Typhoon Pamela battered the island. He has been GPA general manager since January 2003, a month after Typhoon Pongsona wreaked its havoc on Guam with winds similar in strength to those of Mawar.
The Mawar recovery has been quicker than that of Pongsona, Benavente told the Pacific Island Times on July 6. “There’s really no comparison,” he said. “Here we are six weeks (after Mawar hit Guam) and we’re between 96 and 99 percent restored. We’re going through the process now of sweeping the area for the last of the customers to be restored.”
Three weeks after Mawar, GPA had restored service to 70 percent of its customers; one month after Pongsona, the utility had restored power to only 10 to 20 percent of its system. It took GPA three months after Pongsona to restore service to all its customers, he said.
The Mawar recovery was faster because the agency had hardened key parts of its infrastructure, increased the number of bucket trucks in its fleet, stockpiled spare parts and solicited help from off-island power companies, Benavente said.
“Hardening” the infrastructure - making the system more resistant to damaging forces – has primarily involved replacing wooden utility poles with concrete poles and placing transmission lines underground.
GPA began hardening poles in the 1980s, Benavente said. Prior to Mawar, 99 percent of the GPA poles were concrete, with about 700 wooden poles remaining in use - that number is closer to 500 now since about 200 were blown down in Mawar.
Following Pongsona, GPA received mitigation funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which it used to place some transmission lines underground as well as to continue replacing wooden poles with concrete.
Underground transmission lines are out of the reach of damaging winds, flying debris and other destructive forces. They currently bring power to a number of areas on island including Andersen Air Force Base, the only area that did not lose power during the storm, and LeoPalace Resort, which lost electricity only after Mawar’s worst had passed.
Other underground lines bring power to Tumon, Tamuning, the airport, parts of Dededo, Talo’fo’fo, Hagat and other areas. About 20 percent of Guam homes have some connection to underground lines, which are less likely to be damaged and quicker to have power restored.
While it is generally agreed that burying transmission lines is the most effective way to harden the system, burying all of Guam’s transmission lines would cost an estimated $7 billion, which Benavente sees as unaffordable. “I’m not sure that they could go out and borrow that kind of money,” he said. “Even if we could borrow it, your (power) rates are going to be, maybe, three to five times what they are today.”
It could be “kind of achievable,” however, if it is done a bit at a time, as is being done with the pole replacement project, which has taken more than 30 years to get the percentage of concrete poles up to 98 or 99 percent.
The federal government also has a stake in ensuring Guam’s utilities remain intact, particularly in an emergency. Local officials plan to approach the Department of Defense, FEMA and other federal entities about funding the burial of GPA power lines.
“We have to be resilient not only for storms but also for national threats,” he said, referring specifically to national security threats from China and North Korea. “So we’ll be looking to our federal partners to invest in the island.”
In addition to the hardened parts of the GPA system, workers were able to begin work faster after Mawar because GPA had 25 bucket trucks on island as opposed to 10 or fewer after Pongsona. It also had stockpiled $15 million worth of spare parts: “from poles to transformers and every piece that we would need to work on the system,” he said.
Stockpiling parts was successful. “We did not run out of any transformers for this recovery,” he said. “Over 260 transformers failed, but we had adequate transformers to handle that. Over 200 total poles fell down, but we still had 300 or 400 poles in our inventory.”
GPA also brought in an additional 35 skilled workers for the Mawar emergency under mutual assistance agreements with power utilities in Pohnpei, the Northern Marianas and Snohomish County in Washington state.
Solar fields fared fairly well in Mawar, though the fluctuation in production that is inherent in solar power and the expense of batteries to store the power remain problems. The 25-megawatt Dandan facility was online in early July. The Pagat array lost about 300 panels out of its 200,000 total panels and was producing at half its capacity in July when it was awaiting the arrival of a technician to assist in completing its recovery.
Damage to the fuel storage tanks of the 168 MW Ukudu power plant, which remains under construction, means a delay of as much as a year before the generator can be brought online. While the parts of the facility that had been completed held up well, the two fuel tanks were still under construction.
“Not only will (the new generators) be more storm resistant, but they’re going to produce energy at a very cheap price,” Benavente said.
Trimming tree branches and other vegetation away from active power lines has been an ongoing GPA project. “The concrete pole system stood up, but the vines and the trees and everything went into (and damaged) the lines,” he said. “We have to do more. We have to go in there; even if it's on your property, you have to allow us to cut down trees that will go into the line. It’s not only about your power, it’s about 3,000 other people that are on the same line.”