From: Mat Probasco, Associated Press
Published May 13, 2005 12:00 AM

U.S. Virgin Islands Should Use Caribbean Sun, Switch to Solar Energy, Says Official

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands — U.S. Virgin Islands residents ought to switch to solar power because of skyrocketing oil prices, an official said Thursday.


The average electricity bill shot up 3.7 percent this month because of the rising cost of oil, which the U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority burns to generate power. Fuel comes from the Hovensa oil refinery in St. Croix, the second-largest oil refinery in the Western Hemisphere.


Home owners and businesses could save millions by drawing on the U.S. Caribbean territory's sunny skies to make their own electricity, said Alberto Bruno-Vega, who heads the power authority. Consumers could buy and install solar panels with help from government loans and grants and sell excess energy to the government, he said.


"It may sound crazy to tell customers to shop somewhere else, but we need to switch away from fuel oil," Bruno-Vega said.


The call for a switch came after a government audit in December detailed widespread abuses within the state-owned utility company, resulting in millions of lost dollars passed on to consumers in the form of higher bills.


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Employees allegedly allowed unlicensed electricians to bypass water and electricity meters to benefit certain customers. They also stole government property and failed to report meter tampering to police, the audit revealed.


University of the Virgin Islands officials said installing solar water heaters and energy efficient equipment on the university's two campuses has saved millions in electricity and water costs.


"We've virtually eliminated conventional water heating on the campus," said Patrick O'Donnell, the school's capital projects director.


The school is seeking US$3 million to build a 200-foot (61-meter) tall wind-driven generator that could produce more than 2 million kilowatt hours, spokeswoman Patrice Johnson said.


In March, the utility company warned it would not supply power or water for new schools or health clinics unless the government starts paying its $16 million debt to the company.


Two public hospitals and the Department of Education are among the indebted government institutions.


Source: Associated Press


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