E.P.C.'s job includes shedding light

And so cyclone season is upon us. The yearly test of our nation’s essential infrastructure is underway.

As if on cue, all of Upolu was affected by a power outage on Tuesday this week, with the power intermittently cutting in and out over a period of several hours. 

But so far explanations about the outage from the Electricity Power Corporation (E.P.C.) have not shed light on the situation. 

That is not acceptable. Going into cyclone season we are likely to see more power failures and each one deserves to be accompanied by an explanation. 

We were told on Friday that a technical fault from Samoa’s hydroelectricity supply eventually caused a “supply-demand” imbalance that led to a “total system collapse”. 

The problem with this explanation is that it generates more questions than answers.

The E.P.C. said that two online Fiaga generators responded to recover the loss of power supply but all reached full load capacity and were unable to sustain system stability

In the absence of other information that suggests that the Fiaga plant - which has four generators - was operating at half capacity. Why is that the case?

Questions about the capacity of the much-heralded Fiaga diesel plant and its inability to remain online consistently or to make up for faults in other, much smaller renewable parts of our energy supply network dogged the E.P.C. for the first two months of this year. 

On the evidence presented by the corporation about Tuesday’s outage, those questions about the Fiaga plant are not going to go away anytime soon - or be adequately explained. 

With all that has happened in between it seems like longer, but it was only at the start of this year, during the months of January and February that Samoa was intermittently paralysed by power outages over periods of several weeks.  

Despite the nation’s stated goal of shifting to 100 per cent renewables by 2021 - something, we were last told has been halfway achieved - we are incredibly reliant on the nation’s Fiaga diesel power plant. 

And that plant has been a thorn in the side of the state-owned utility, often being blamed for massive problems across the nation.

As a result, a considerable amount of resources have been expended into improving the capacity of what was already a massively expensive piece of infrastructure. The results have been less than impressive. 

Given everything we went through with the diesel plant’s failures last year, we deserve to know why the generator was overloaded so quickly. But the E.P.C.’s minimal explanation does not do so. 

A lightning strike or “act of God” was blamed for the blackouts throughout February and January that knocked out two of the four generators at the Fiaga plant causing trouble for months.

But on Tuesday apparently, only two generators were online - an admission that raises several questions about whether such an expensive piece of infrastructure routinely operates at half capacity. 

There are several differences between last year’s outages and the one that struck on Tuesday.

For one thing, Tuesday’s was far less serious and, to the E.P.C.’s credit, remedied within hours.

But one thing that discredits the state-owned utility is that it did not provide an adequate explanation about why its Fiaga plant was not operating at capacity.  

That stands in stark contrast to last year when, if anything the E.P.C. was, providing constant - if often confusing - updates about the source of the nation’s power problems. 

The previous General Manager for the Electric Power Corporation (E.P.C.), Tologatā Tile Tuimalealiifano, said the nation was under a “state of emergency” and could face the possibility of power rationing so serious were the problems affecting the nation’s infrastructure. 

Those worst-case scenarios did not turn out. We were then told that the source of the power outages had been definitively fixed.

Of course, another blackout soon followed that declaration.

The Minister responsible, Papalii Niko Lee Hang, said that there was simply no way to guarantee the power could be fixed, so long as Samoa’s key power source, Fiaga, remained vulnerable to the elements. 

After last year’s disastrous cyclone season, the corporation commissioned a review into its systems for making sure electricity was failsafe. 

An engineering firm from New Zealand reviewed the Fiaga protection systems after the two generators were seriously damaged by lightning. 

The report’s recommended changes should have been or close to being implemented by now. 

“We believe what we have built up so far is capable of withstanding any future storms. But after we implement the extra recommendations it will build up the system,” Tologatā said.

That we needed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more on reviewing a power planet we were assured was state-of-the-art and which was part of a US$100 million project to expand Samoa's power capacity raises questions about why power problems persist. 

The Fiaga plant, when it was commissioned in 2013, was sold as the most sophisticated piece of energy technology on the planet. 

The plant even sprays inert gases over vulnerable components during times of stress to prevent sparks and overload, it was said. 

But in case of further maintenance problems, we have even brought over a Japanese consultant to support repairs to the plant on a full-time basis with a salary of some $170,000 a year. 

The E.P.C. has failed its first power test, but the inconvenience was minor. 

But their reluctance to reveal how Fiaga can continue to operate at below capacity and cause “total system failure” is deeply concerning. 

Tologata has resigned from the leadership of the organisation to run for Parliament after serving three three-year terms at the top. 

His replacement, Faumui Tauiliili Iese Toimoana, was announced in October. 

Let us hope that Tologata’s regime of relative transparency, if perhaps bordering on ebullience, is not replaced by one where explanations are scant.

After all, the E.P.C. is not just an essential service to Samoans; it is a state utility. 

Its owners are Samoans.

We have every right to ask whether, with so much money spent on upgrading the nation’s most important piece of infrastructure, it is continuing to be plagued by problems.  

Samoans have every right to expect not just reliable service but an explanation when it falls short of that. 

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