ROLLING BLACKOUTS RETURN TO TROUBLED SAIPAN

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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, June 21) - A rolling blackout occurred again yesterday due to a fuel shortage and after one of the major engines at the main power plant on Saipan broke down.

For the 11th time since last month, the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. cut electricity on island without prior announcement.

CUC spokeswoman Pamela Mathis said the rolling blackout, which was executed every two hours from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., is expected to continue today or beyond if the situation with the antiquated engines does not improve.

"Power outages will continue…likely on Thursday as Saipan’s main power plant generators are either inoperative or running at less capacity," said Mathis. "The power plant cannot produce enough electricity."

One of the major engines at power plant 1 broke down early yesterday morning.

"The unit is already 20,000 hours past due for a major overhaul. When running past the maintenance recommendations, the engine alignment is affected, causing vibrations and these vibrations caused five motor blades to break off-puncturing the radiator core," said Mathis.

"CUC mechanics require cranes and boom equipment just to assess damage. This means that it is very difficult to advise the public of a timeframe for repairs. Contractors were hired and arrived before noon Wednesday for the repairs," she added.

She said there is no guarantee when the troubled engine will be fixed but did say that CUC will cancel the scheduled rolling blackout as soon as the situation improves.

Only "four and a half" of its eight engines are running at Saipan’s main power plant.

"Three are now inoperative and one is running at half capacity. The cost to overhaul three units, scheduled now, is not less than US$11.5 million. Overhauls take eight to 12 months per unit," Mathis said.

The secondary power plants cannot cushion the impact of the loss of bigger engines because those engines too are in danger of being shut down due to lack of fuel.

"Power plant 4, which sells energy to CUC, is being utilized, but it requires another fuel shipment now," said Mathis. "A Thursday delivery of just 60,000 gallons runs US$143,000, lasting only until Sunday. The plant is rationing fuel by operating at only peak periods of customer demand."

Work was interrupted at some government offices without power generators due to the rolling blackouts.

At the legislative building, power was cut off from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Between those hours, the legislative employees killed time chatting with each other.

"We can’t do anything," said one of the secretaries. "We can’t even use the phone because it’s powered by electricity. We just look at each other and get on each other’s nerves."

Another employee said the constant power outages will eventually ruin their office computers and air-conditioning units.

"This is really bad," she said.

June 22, 2006

Marianas Variety: www.mvariety.com

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