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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Sept. 4) – The Northern Marianas’ $3.05 hourly wage is the lowest among the jurisdictions of the United States yet it has the highest power rates in the entire nation, statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show.

This month, the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. added .004 cents per kilowatt hour to its newly-imposed total electric rates, bringing to 23.5 cents per kwh [kilowatt hour] the minimum cost of electricity for residential customers; 30.5 kwh for commercial customers; and 31 cents per kwh for the government.

"At 31 cents per kilowatt hour, we have the highest retail energy prices in the U.S.," said acting Gov. Timothy P. Villagomez in his remarks at the Marianas Roundtable-Focus on Energy last week.

According to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration released on Aug. 11, the CNMI’s retail price for electricity for both residential and commercial is the highest even compared to Hawaii, which is among the most expensive states to live in the U.S.

Data show Hawaii residents pay on the average 22.95 cents per kwh for their electricity, while commercial customers are charged 19.03 cents.

Data show the average retail price of electricity for residential customers is the lowest in West Virginia at 6.21 cents per kwh, while its commercial rate is 6.17 cents.

Except for Florida, residents in areas covered in the West North Central and South Atlantic such as Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, pay less than 10 cents per kwh for their electricity.

The same goes for the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee in East South Central and even some parts of West South Central such as Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

California residents are charged on the average $13.54 cents per kwh while New Yorkers pay 16.21 cents per kwh.

Villagomez said the problem lies with the islands’ dependence on costly fossil fuel and its remote geographic location.

Last year, about 35 million gallons of diesel fuel were used to generate power on the islands and despite its soaring prices the volume of consumption hasn’t deminished.

"Our fuel usage in the first half of this year has not gone down. Our dependence on diesel goes all the way back to the Trust Territory days and the decision to carry forward the military’s use of diesel for large scale power generation and transportation," said Villagomez.

He said the fuel prices during the first few months of the year increased by as much as 13 percent and there are no indications that it will significantly go down in the near future.

Because of this, he called on the public to explore alternative sources of energy as well as energy conservation.

"We need to figure out how to replace some part of the diesel that we use with cheaper alternatives. We are not going to be able to find anything that will take the place of all the diesel we use but every bit that we can replace will help," the acting governor said.

Among his suggestions is the establishment of small-scale biodiesel, private solar systems and micro-hydro power systems.

Guam is already experimenting with biodiesel—processed wasted oil mixed with lye and wood alcohol—as an alternative fuel source.

Villagomez said a businessman on Guam, whom he did not identify, is processing cooking oil from Saipan into biodiesel for his trucks.

"This small operation on Guam does 3,000 to 5,000 gallons a month. They get 4,125 gallons of biodiesel for every 5,000 gallons of waste cooking oil and fat. Biodiesel can be used alone but it is usually mixed with regular diesel as a 5 percent or 20 percent additive…there is nothing high-tech about this operation…every gallon of biodiesel means a gallon of regular diesel not consumed," said Villagomez.

In the long run, Villagomez said the CNMI can probably venture into the more high-cost options such as ocean-thermal energy conversion and wave energy transformers.

"These are theoretical possibilities in our situation and we will keep an eye on technical developments around the world but these are not current answers to our central problem," he said.

Meanwhile, CUC announced that its daytime rolling blackouts every two hours on Saipan will remain in effect this week.

September 4, 2006

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