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CUC’s power plant needs to be modernized, officials say

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THERE is an immediate need to  “modernize” the over 40-year-old engines at the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. power plant in Lower Base, but funding remains to be the biggest challenge.

This was among the observations of House Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, House Committee on Public Utilities, Transportation and Communications Chairman Marco T. Peter, and Federal Emergency Management Agency acting division supervisor for Covid-19 response Robert Bezek after a two-hour tour of the power plant on Monday.

The tour was led by CUC Executive Director Gary Camacho, power plant manager Richard Cano, technical manager for oil Ray Masga and power plant senior engineer Bradley Neuse.

The power plant is a very outdated facility, Bezek said, adding that maintenance and getting  parts abroad worsen the problem due to the difficulty of shipment  amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“They really need to invest in modernization,” he added, referring to CUC.

CUC needs help from the federal government, particularly from the Department of Energy to help finance the CUC modernization program, Bezek said.

Renewable energy could be an option, he said, but added that CUC must get an expert to study its feasibility.

Peter said the CUC engines are obsolete and the parts are expensive because they had to be “customized.”

With the Covid-19 situation, it has become more difficult for CUC to immediately get parts abroad and they take time to arrive on Saipan, he added.

The funding issue could be addressed if the CNMI government starts paying its utility bills, particularly the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. whose unpaid utility bills have already reached $35 million, Peter said.

“CUC has a duty to provide service to the community,” he said. “If we don’t pay our bill we get cut off.”

CHCC must start paying its utility bills, he said.

CHCC, for its part, has said that the central government should provide more funding to the healthcare corporation.

Peter said his committee will be collaborating with the House speaker in looking for alternative funding sources for CUC, especially for its plan to build a new power plant.

It was his first time to visit the CUC power plant and “it’s an eye opener,” Peter said, adding that he is also planning to visit the power plants on Tinian and Rota.

 

Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, House Committee on Public Utilities, Transportation and Communications Chairman Marco T. Peter and Federal Emergency Management Agency acting division supervisor for Covid-19 response Robert Bezek join a CUC team led by executive director Gary Camacho during a tour of the power plant in Lower Base on Monday.

Speaker Attao said the CNMI’s economic situation is “very dim” but lawmakers will not neglect the  utility services needed by the community.

While funding is an issue, CUC can always apply for grants to finance its programs, he said.

“We need to figure out to make sure that CUC is not compromised while providing energy to our people,” Attao said.

He thanked Camacho and his team for allowing them to visit the power plant and to see some of its challenges.

Camacho said CUC must start planning for the transition to a new power plant.

He added that CUC is working with FEMA and the Department of Energy in preparing an energy plan that includes renewable energy and new technology.

“It is very important that we acquire new technology and become more efficient while reducing kilowatt-hour  cost as much possible,” Camacho said.

He said delinquent customers should pay their bills so CUC can continue to operate and provide utility services to the community.

“Everybody should pay, not only the government,” he said.  “We’re rate-based so we produce it in good faith and if we get payment, then all we do is reinvest it back into our infrastructure.”

The central government, he added, is making payments to CUC, which is also “reconciling some accounts” with the Department of Finance to resolve discrepancies, Camacho said.

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