Fuel Prices May Lead to Pohnpei Power Outages Or...Not?

May 7, 2008

The Kaselehlie Press

Pohnpei Utilities Company Power Plant in Nanpohnmal, Pohnpei Pohnpei, FSM - Between April 16 and April 21st, Pohnpei Utilities Corporation (PUC) aired an announcement on Pohnpei State Radio V6AH 1450 AM. The spot aired twice a day and informed the public that since the price of diesel had increased to $4.37 per gallon they would begin disconnecting "excessive and unpaid streetlights, and disconnection of none-paying (sic) or delinquent customers."

PUC said in that announcement that linemen conducted a streetlight survey and concluded that "there are 828 streetlights around the island that are functional and only 176 are being billed regularly." They say that as a result of this, PUC has been realizing losses of $17,707.86 monthly on 652 streetlights.

We spoke with several people who had problems with streetlights. One, who is from U said that he has been paying $10 a month for a streetlight that has remained on all day and all night. That person said that the problem, according to PUC employees who showed up during the time that the V6AH announcement was airing, was a bad photo-electric switch that is supposed to turn the light on and off electronically. When the employees told him what the problem was and further said that they would have to disconnect the light, the customer offered to pay for the photo-electric switch himself to avoid having the streetlight turned off.

The Oliver family has a streetlight both inside and outside of their gated and fenced property. The homestead is affectionately named "Fort Richie" and was named for their son who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Reed Oliver said that he and his wife wrote a series of letters to PUC over the last several years reporting that the outside streetlight for which they were being billed on a monthly basis was not working.

PUC showed up within the last few weeks and ripped out the power line that services a nahs and a chapel that is on their property along with a street light that the family privately installed and for which they paid. Those buildings are on a meter that shares a bill with the two street lights that are on their property. Mr. Oliver says that disconnection of power for their private buildings was the result of non-payment for the outside streetlight. The family contends that the light has not worked for years despite the arrival of monthly bills for it. The issue is still being debated between PUC and the Oliver family.

PUC, in its announcement on V6AH said "the cost of operating or servicing a single streetlight is $27.16." The PUC customer in U said he was paying $10 per month for his street light.

Senator Magdalena Walter said that she read a letter that was sent from PUC to the Governor's office that proposed that there be nightly scheduled power outages in Pohnpei in order to conserve fuel for the generators in the event of fuel shortages.

PUC paid over $939,000 for fuel in the month of April alone. In order to pay a bill of that magnitude they would have to sell over 6260 $5 cash power slips per day and not spend any money in the process of doing that.

Walter said that the letter proposed a nightly power outage that would cover the area from Sokehs to Palikir and would occur between the hours of 1:00 a.m and 3:00 a.m. Kolonia, she said, from her remembrance of the letter would, if the proposal was approved, have an outage from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.

She said that she expected after reading the letter that the outages would begin on May 1. With that in mind she called the power plant after midnight on the first of May and was told that the staff there had received no directive from PUC administration to turn off the feeders for a municipality anywhere in Pohnpei.

Walter said she called the power plant that night because she was concerned about the power to her ice makers and other machinery at Nihco Marine Park and she wanted to know how to instruct her staff on what to turn off at the park.

A PUC employee we spoke with on the phone said that the proposed power outages would include Sokehs and that they would extend southward and eastward through Madolenihmw including Kitti between the hours 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. She said that Kolonia and Nett would have an outage from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. The way she described it the plan would exclude the U municipality. She said that the plan that was proposed was a contingency plan in the event that PUC was running low on fuel; an emergency plan, "just in case."

It is clear that PUC has had fuel supply problems in the past. On April 16, Karnal Singh , the President of Mobil Oil Micronesia, Incorporated (MOMI) wrote a letter to PUC's interim CEO, Nixon Anson. In the letter he apologized for what he characterized as a "breakdown in communications with our staff in Pohnpei."

That breakdown in communication according to PUC staffers in the comptroller's office caused a power outage in Pohnpei specifically due to a lack of fuel for which PUC had already paid but that was not delivered. According to a PUC staffer, part of their order was fulfilled but before the last 5000 gallons could be delivered the price of fuel changed. A late night MOMI delivery solved the problem but not until power had been shut down over most of the island for several hours.

"Once we receive FSMPC's (FSM Petroleum Corporation) endorsement of the new contract between PUC and MOMI, rest assured that MOMI will credit PUC, from April 1, 2008, for the price difference," wrote Mr. Singh. MOMI's communication problems don't seem to be isolated.

We talked to over twenty FSM citizens and asked them if they had heard a news item on V6AH suggesting that there might be planned power outages in Pohnpei. We found only one of them who said that the news item was on the radio and that she heard it in the afternoon. The rest said that they rarely listen to the station.

The news director of V6AH said that PUC had not submitted a Public Announcement that announced a possible schedule of power outages. She suggested that it was possible that the Governor's Public Information Officer had released something in one of his daily news broadcasts but that she couldn't be certain as he picks up his cassette tapes on a daily basis.

The employee that we talked with at PUC said that she didn't mind if we wrote stories about PUC as long as we got them right. That possibility was hampered by communication problems of another order. We called PUC for three straight days hoping to speak with the interim CEO, Nixon Anson in order to clear up the proposed plan along with other facts we wanted to discuss. We were told on the third day of calling by the person who answers the phone on behalf of Mr. Anson that he had instructed her to tell us that he couldn't speak with the press until he had "worked things out with" State and National Government officials.

We called the Pohnpei State Legislature to speak with Senator Stevickson Edwin, the chairman of the Public Works, Transportation and Communication standing committee that oversees PUC. We were told that he was in a meeting and that he would call when the meeting was over. The next day we followed up only to find that he and the Vice Chair for the committee had left island the day before. It is entirely possible that they both were involved in last minute preparations for their trip and simply didn't have time to talk with us when their Thursday meeting was concluded.

We also called the Pohnpei State Executive Branch but received no reply by deadline. Meanwhile some businesses are making plans to be certain that they can continue to function. The owner of Palm Terrace, operating both on a rumor that the MOMI bulk plant was going to be under new management by May 15 and the rumor of power outages has stocked up with as much diesel fuel as they can store to keep their coolers operating during power outages.

Business owners are looking for their own generators in order to protect their investments during the night time hours.

Bakery operators in Kolonia are concerned about whether they will be able to deliver hot donuts and pastries by 6:00 in the morning.

According to Senator Walter, the hospital and those PUC customers that are on the same feeder lines as the hospital will be safe from power outages. That power line, as far as she knows, is not part of the proposed plan for power rationing.

Perhaps no one in the public will truly know anything unless or until the lights, refrigerators, computers or anything else that can be plugged into a socket, go out on a regular basis.