BY GIFF JOHNSON
Marshall Islands Correspondent
MAJURO, Marshall Islands — Ongoing power outages in the two urban centers in the Marshall Islands during 2020 underline aging generators and distribution systems, highlighting the challenge facing the two main islands in the short-term.
Although donor funding is paying for new generators, renovation of an aging and corroded tank farm, and improvements in distribution systems that see losses as high as 25%, most of these have been delayed by border closures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. While the outlook may improve by the end of 2021 or 2022, repeated unplanned outages are expected for the immediate future.
“We know what the problems are and we know the solutions are,” said Jack Chong-Gum, the general manager of Majuro’s utility, the Marshalls Energy Co. “It’s a matter of time and money.”
Major improvements to the Majuro and Ebeye power plants, and Majuro’s distribution system, tank farm and solar systems are moving forward, with many to be implemented over the next 24 months. Most are funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Ebeye has received delivery of four new generators over the past several months, with two of the new engines now hooked up and providing power. Since January, when the last of its ailing engines was forced off-line by mechanical problems, Ebeye has relied on three containerized rental generators provided by Papua New Guinea-based Agreko Co.
The COVID-19 situation caused the Marshall Islands to close its borders in early March, meaning technicians from generator manufacturers cannot come in to assist with installation and final commissioning, slowing the process of stabilizing the power situation. It took nearly a month of trial and error, with Cummins engine technicians in Australia providing guidance through online platforms, for the first two engines to be successfully installed in October.
The same challenge will face the Majuro power plant, which has multiple new generators expected to arrive for installation in 2021 to replace several that are nearing the 40-year age mark.
Majuro’s power plant in particular has significant needs, including the need to replace at least two of the power plant’s oldest engines. In addition, both of the large Deutz engines — which are rated at 6.5 megawatts each, but produce significantly less after 20 years of use — need overhaul that will take them off line for a period of time for replacement of parts and overall upgrades.
The overhauls for the two existing engines are expected to start in January, pending arrival of some additional parts for the work. Chong-Gum said the Marshalls Energy Co. secured a good deal through the American Samoa Power Authority, which decommissioned its smaller Deutz engines recently. “We bought all the parts we need for our engines,” Chong-Gum said, adding MEC saved 50% or more on what it would cost to purchase these parts directly from a manufacturer. “I’m happy we could strike a deal with them.” Several containers with parts from American Samoa are expected to arrive shortly, which will facilitate the overhauls planned on MEC’s Deutz engines, upgrades expected to increase the power output.
Action is also moving ahead for replacement of old engines in the original power plant first opened in the early 1980s. The World Bank is providing funding for two new 2.5-megawatt generators. Because the bidder was below the price estimated for the engines, MEC submitted a request, now pending with the World Bank, to use the leftover funding to purchase a third 2.5-megawatt engine, Chong-Gum said. MEC is getting Caterpillar engines. These will replace two or three of the nearly 40-year-old Pielstik engines that were installed when the first power plant was built in 1981.
The good news, aside from the long-term picture improvement from two or three new engines in the power plant, is that the World Bank grant is funding purchase of three containerized generators that will be owned by MEC. This means MEC will have backup power so that “we can provide uninterrupted power while we decommission the old engines and replace them with the new ones,” Chong-Gum said.
There isn’t yet a date for arrival of the new engines, but Chong-Gum expects this to take place in 2021. The COVID border lock down is a hurdle, as MEC needs to get manufacturer technicians in to assist with installation and commissioning of the new engines after they arrive next year.
An important part of a World Bank grant to MEC is funding for installation of two megawatts worth of solar power for Majuro. This is expected to see the installation starting next year of solar panels covering Majuro’s airport reservoirs and the roof tops of schools and government buildings in different parts of the island. In addition, the grant is providing for the construction of a number of roofs over existing sports courts, providing additional platforms for installation of solar panels.
All of these solar panels will be connected to the MEC power grid, according to Chong-Gum.
The aim is to reduce MEC’s dependence on diesel fuel, lowering its overall operating costs as it provides power for the capital atoll.
Until these donor-funded upgrades are complete, however, local businesses and residents can expect the off-and-on power situation that has afflicted the capital for some months will continue for the immediate future. mbj