When you think of the electrical infrastructure that supplies Ambergris Caye with power, the mind travels back to Christmas.
Not last Christmas when the power went out for five hours.
Further back — let’s say 25 years ago because that is when the current power infrastructure for Ambergris Caye was designed –to a time when Dad was stringing lights on the tree and a single bulb went out. Well, it might have been a single bulb. You didn’t know because the entire string of lights went out.
This is Belize Electric Ltd. today.
Christmas lights fed off a single strand, each bulb dependent on the next to carry the power along from one end to the next. A single failure along the way spelled doom for the entire system.
Over time, as parts and labor grew cheap (and moved overseas) Christmas lights were designed with parallel lines so, at most, one bulb would die and you could spot it in an instant, replace it and nobody else would notice.
This one, single, design upgrade saved untold thousands of families from divorce, holiday domestic violence and severe drinking problems.
This is Belize Electric Ltd. of the future. The fairly near future.
This is the story that unfolded last night at the appropriately named Lions Den in downtown San Pedro, where officials and engineers from the public utility faced a public that had recently gone through an 18-hour blackout.
Last Wednesday. Remember? At 9:17 p.m. to be precise.
I’m not sure how many of us remember, considering that barely more than a dozen “victims” of the blackout showed up.
OK, OK. This was hardly the first blackout on the island — and not the worst. But BEL’s desire to share its plans for the future in such detail, and the fact that it basically was offering “open mic night” for the public to howl and rage on into the darkness is unprecedented in the nearly three years we have lived here.
The utility message from last night was pretty straightforward:
- We feel your pain (especially BEL’s chief engineer. Literally, as he lives here on Ambergris Caye and was without power and water like the rest of the community).
- While power outages have been much worse in the past, we’re not satisfied with where things are today.
- Things will be getting better, in the near future.
That near future could come as soon as Sunday, when a 25 megawatt transformer is scheduled to go online in the system that supplies the island with power.
What does that mean and how is that a big deal?
Think back to the Christmas blackout. BEL anticipated a surge in demand and figured that it would top out at 8.5 megawatts. But when everyone lit up, apparently demand surged over 11 megawatts.
The sucking sound you hear is equivalent to your cistern running dry. But followed by darkness and an eerie silence. Silent night, holy night.
The 25 megawatt transformer ensures that the system will have the capacity to meet future demand for some years to come.
Assuming nothing else fails.
A very precarious assumption, as BEL itself points out.
Our spur off the Belize power grid begins at a gateway called the Maskall Substation. Power is drawn in from Mexico or any of a number of smaller independent electricity providers in-country — four hydroelectric power stations, the sugar cane mill’s generator, etc.
Maskall sends the power to the little village of Bomba where the power lines drop underwater and continue an 11-mile journey to the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. The submarine cable surfaces and begins a six-mile overland journey, nearly to Ramon’s resort in San Pedro Town. From there an underground cable travels a half-mile to the island substation from which power is distributed over four system feeds to the entire island.
“Did he say Mexico?” you ask.
“Hasn’t that been part of the problem?” you ask, and without waiting for an answer you recall that, “jeeze, most of the times that we lose power, everyone blames Mexico!”
And it is true. When the power goes out in Mexico, the Belize grid collapses. There isn’t enough in-house generation to meet our country’s demand.
So here’s the good news: Redundancy. (Great word. Look it up.)
Mexico is currently building parallel power lines to the Belize border.
That means if one fails, the other keeps pumping power into Belize. Like a modern day string of Christmas tree lights.
Of course, when the power hits the BEL single-strand infrastructure all the redundancy in the world (of Mexico) won’t matter.
So, redundancy is BEL’s next holy grail. And we could see it as soon as 2019.
BEL has been working on a couple of options for running another power line to the island. One would begin at Maskall Substation on the mainland and travel northeast to the water’s edge where a second submarine cable would travel to north Ambergris Caye. A second option would send a submarine cable out from Belize City to Stake Bank Caye and then hopscotch from cay to cay north, providing power along the way, to Caye Caulker and finally to south Ambergris Caye.
The current submarine cable is the most reliable part of the entire power feed, according to BEL engineers. And it has room for more capacity, about another five years of growth in demand.
If it should ever fail, however, the 11 miles of cable would have to be brought to the surface for repair. And help would be needed from outside the country to accomplish that. BEL says the island would be without power for three days. Minimum.
So, a second cable is a good thing. Right?
Damn right. Bring it on!
Last night’s meeting covered a lot of territory. Here’s some of the rest.
Hey, listen up! This is important:
- The BEL crew on the island was nothing short of heroic during the recent outage. After working all day Wednesday they were back on the job by 9:30 p.m. trying to suss out the problem. They worked through the night, until replaced by mainland teams. NEW POLICY ALERT: In the future, BEL says it will not wait until morning for commercial flights to open to send over crews. They will hire boats or planes or whatever it takes to get crews here immediately.
- BEL has one customer service representative on the island. Not good enough. It is adding a second, within three weeks.
- The planned 8-hour maintenance outage set for this Sunday has been postponed until after the upcoming Costa Maya Festival and may be as late as October or November. It has been delayed three times already, for various reasons.
- An under-capacity transformer in north Ambergris Caye that fails on a pretty regular basis is being replaced today, according to BEL. It affects a group of residences and businesses clustered around The Truck Stop and Stella’s Smile restaurants, about a mile north of the bridge. I stopped by this morning and, true to their words, the local crew was swapping out the transformer.
- BEL customer service is in the process of setting up a new call center that will respond more quickly to inquiries, complaints and the occasional compliment. Meanwhile you can go to the BEL website or Facebook page and sign up for alerts — text messages, Facebook posts, SMS alerts — stay informed!
- Mayor Daniel Guerrero diplomatically suggested that BEL double whatever its current estimates for increased demand are for the island. “Investors are coming,” he warned. “Demand will go wild.” He noted that the water and sewer utility has $50 million in improvements in the works and Belize Telemedia is about to begin a $30 million fiber optic upgrade.
- Minister Manuel Heredia Jr. chipped in with the observation that Ambergris Caye generates $150 million annually, mostly from tourism, to the government and needs public utility services to match if the island is to remain competitive.
- BEL engineers noted that outages on the island are half of what they were in 2010, “but we’re not satisfied with that.” In fact, the plans presented last night have been in the works for a few years. They were not slapped together in response to the latest outage.