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Concerns Mount Over WAPA Rate Hike Proposal Amid Rising Solar Adoption

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The Virgin Islands Public Services Commission expressed grave concerns on Tuesday regarding a potential increase in the Levelized Energy Adjustment Clause (LEAC) rates proposed by the Water and Power Authority (WAPA). This move, officials fear, may further shrink WAPA’s already diminishing customer base.

During a Senate Committee meeting on Government Operations, Veterans Affairs, and Consumer Protection, PSC Executive Director Sandra Setorie cautioned that raising the electric LEAC could be counterproductive. The LEAC has been held steady since 2022, falling below the actual costs of fuel and purchased power. The Virgin Islands government has been subsidizing these additional expenses, preventing them from burdening consumers. Despite this, WAPA has accumulated around $90 million in deferred balances and is considering applying for a LEAC increase to address this financial shortfall.

Ms. Setorie underscored the potential negative impact of higher LEAC rates on WAPA’s customer retention. The authority witnessed a 30% drop in sales from 2012 to 2017, a trend that might be exacerbated by increased electricity costs. She pointed out that, for many, solar and battery systems are becoming more cost-effective alternatives to WAPA’s services.

The committee, including Senator Ray Fonseca, reacted with concern to these revelations. Mr. Fonseca highlighted the vicious cycle where customer loss leads to higher bills. He inquired about WAPA’s strategies to expand its customer base, to which Ms. Setorie responded that the authority is planning to increase its focus on renewable energy sources like solar and wind to lower energy rates. WAPA’s commitment to this transition has been evident in its recent agreements for wind and solar power procurement.

Boyd Sprehn, the PSC’s general counsel, noted that WAPA anticipates lower operating costs in the future, due to sustainable energy initiatives and the transition from diesel to propane in power generation. These cost savings, he explained, could eventually be passed on to consumers.

Yet, with no concrete timeline for these developments, committee members, including Senator Milton Potter, expressed concern about WAPA’s immediate and long-term viability amidst increasing customer migration to alternative energy sources. Ms. Setorie concurred, acknowledging the risks faced by all power utilities in this changing landscape.

The PSC remains committed to guiding WAPA in integrating alternative energy, despite the slow pace of progress. Senator Novelle Francis raised concerns about the impact on vulnerable citizens who rely on WAPA, pointing out that those who can afford to leave the system are doing so, leaving those with limited means more exposed to potential cost increases. This scenario could necessitate continued government subsidies for WAPA, further straining public resources.

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WAPA: Inspector General Advances Audit Amid Fitch Ratings’ Withdrawal

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In a decisive move towards transparency and accountability, the Office of the Inspector General, following discussions with Senator Kenneth Gittens, has initiated a comprehensive audit of the V.I. Water & Power Authority (WAPA). This critical examination, a directive of Act 8731, will scrutinize several pivotal aspects of WAPA’s operations. The focus areas include the VITOL propane contract, the intricacies of the electronic metering system, the terms of various leases, the transfer of WAPA equipment to the British Virgin Islands, and the troubling loss of over $2 million to an offshore account.

Senator Gittens, voicing significant concerns, underscored the importance of this audit: “Without a thorough understanding and accountability for what transpired, how can we safeguard WAPA from repeating these errors?” His statement highlights the necessity of this audit in providing a detailed insight into WAPA’s internal mechanisms and in ensuring accountability for previous decisions and actions.

Inspector General Delia Thomas has acknowledged a minor delay in the one-year timeline mandated by the Legislature for this audit. Initially vetoed by Governor Albert A. Bryan, Act 8731 was later enacted following an override by the Senators on June 14, 2023, thus mandating the start of the audit.

The Importance of the Audit in Light of Fitch Ratings’ Withdrawal

The imperative nature of this audit is further accentuated by the recent decision of Fitch Ratings to withdraw most of its ratings for WAPA’s bonds. This withdrawal, attributed to a lack of sufficient financial information and ongoing concerns about transparency, underscores the need for meticulous scrutiny. Fitch Ratings, a renowned credit rating agency, has ceased providing ratings for WAPA primarily due to the utility’s limited transparency and the non-availability of audited financial statements.

Highlighting the essential role of WAPA in the everyday lives of the territory’s residents, Senator Gittens called for genuine accountability and improved governance within the utility. He pointed to a persistent pattern of mismanagement that must be resolved for the utility’s prosperity and the overall well-being of the territory. This audit represents a significant step towards rectifying past issues and setting a course for a more accountable and transparent future for WAPA.

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Fitch Ceases WAPA Bond Ratings Amid Limited Information

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In a significant development, Fitch Ratings has opted to discontinue several ratings for the V.I. Water and Power Authority (WAPA). This decision, which took effect in December, encompasses the withdrawal of ratings for about $74 million in electric system revenue bonds (series 2003 and 2010C) and $69 million in electric system subordinate revenue bonds (series 2007A and 2012C). These bonds were previously graded ‘CC’. Additionally, the Issuer Default Rating (IDR) for WAPA, also rated ‘CC’, has been retracted.

The basis for this move is rooted in the challenges Fitch faced in accessing comprehensive operational and financial data from WAPA. This scarcity of information, both from public sources and directly from WAPA’s management, led Fitch to conclude that there was insufficient transparency to uphold these ratings. As a result, Fitch has terminated not only the bond ratings but also its broader analytical coverage of WAPA. This includes the withdrawal of WAPA’s Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Relevance Score ratings.

Regarding the bonds’ financial security, the electric system revenue bonds are secured by a pledge of net revenue from electricity sales and specific reserves outlined in the bond agreement. The subordinate revenue bonds, while similarly backed, hold a lower priority in payment hierarchy. In essence, primary revenue bonds are first in line for payment in scenarios of limited funds. Both bond types are additionally reinforced by special reserve funds dedicated to debt servicing.

Fitch’s decision also extends to the withdrawal of the Revenue Defensibility, Operating Risk, and Financial Profile ratings, labeled as ‘wd’. The ratings agency has also noted ESG considerations, particularly in governance. There’s a potential for the establishment of an oversight committee for WAPA, which could introduce increased political involvement and potentially lead to debt restructuring. Fitch sees this as escalating the risk of a distressed debt exchange.

Post-withdrawal, Fitch has stated that any future assessments for negative or positive rating actions are now irrelevant.

The Impact on WAPA:

  1. Increased Borrowing Costs: Lacking a current credit rating, WAPA may encounter higher borrowing costs. This is due to potential investors demanding higher returns for perceived increased risk, leading to elevated interest rates on future debts.
  2. Market Confidence and Liquidity Challenges: The lack of a credit rating can reduce market confidence in WAPA, potentially impacting its ability to raise capital. This could also affect the liquidity of WAPA’s bonds, making debt management more complex.
  3. Contractual and Reputation Implications: WAPA’s eligibility for investment portfolios requiring rated securities may be compromised. Additionally, the market’s perception of WAPA could be negatively affected, potentially harming its reputation.

WAPA, a government entity of the US Virgin Islands, is the exclusive provider of electric and water services in the territory, including the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. The electric system caters to approximately 50,000 customers across residential, commercial, and large power sectors, including the USVI government.

The ESG Relevance Scores for WAPA previously encompassed aspects like Governance Structure, Environmental Impact Exposure, Financial Transparency, and Group Structure, each influencing the credit profile to varying degrees.

Following Fitch’s withdrawal, these associated ESG Relevance scores for WAPA will no longer be available.

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WAPA Confronts Significant 37% Water Loss, Exceeding Standard Norms

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During a recent presentation to the Public Services Commission, Don Gregoire, the director for water distribution at the Water and Power Authority (WAPA) on St. Croix, disclosed a concerning issue: WAPA is losing a staggering 37 percent of its produced water. This figure starkly surpasses the accepted loss rate of 14.41 percent, and encompasses both actual and billing-related losses.

Jim Madden, a staff member at the PSC, conveyed insights from an analysis initiated by WAPA and finalized in 2015. This investigation, conducted by an external consultant, concluded that WAPA’s water losses were indeed at 37 percent. However, follow-up strategies to reduce these losses to the standard 14 percent were not implemented by the authority.

Madden expressed surprise at this revelation, especially since previous data suggested that St. Thomas was maintaining water line losses at a manageable 15-18 percent range. He emphasized the significance of the gap analysis, which was intended to bridge the disparity between the current losses and the target percentage.

The PSC is currently awaiting formal confirmation regarding the proposed overhaul of St. Croix’s entire water distribution system. Madden advised the commission to request detailed plans and timelines from WAPA to ensure the feasibility of this massive undertaking. He underscored the need for new transmission and distribution pipes, which could substantially improve the water quality issues on St. Croix.

Madden provided a stark comparison to illustrate the extent of the problem: for every gallon of water sold, WAPA is effectively producing two gallons, considering the losses. He noted the financial implications, as all produced water, irrespective of whether it reaches consumers, incurs costs for chemicals, pumping, and electricity.

Addressing the issue’s background, Madden suggested that WAPA’s pressing financial struggles, including cash-flow and liquidity challenges, have overshadowed the water loss issue. However, he acknowledged the planned leak detection survey, funded by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, as a positive step towards identifying critical loss areas.

Don Gregoire, confirming a portion of the losses as billing errors, highlighted the ongoing installation of smart meters, which is expected to enhance billing accuracy. This project, currently about 20 percent complete, promises to play a crucial role in rectifying the billing aspect of WAPA’s water losses.

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