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90 years of electrification in SVG

90 years of electrification in SVG
Opening of the Richmond hydro-electric plant in 1962

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When Vincentians flip an electrical switch in their houses today, it is taken for granted that light will automatically fill the room they are in.

90 years of electrification in SVG
Switchboard at the South Rivers power station

But in 1931, and for a long time after, families like those that 99-year-old Victoria Moses grew up in had no electrical switches to flip; in many cases, nature provided their light.

“Well in those days, there was no electricity. It was kerosene oil that people were using to get light at night. Some people would buy a lamp and up to now, I have a lamp from my parents in those days. You put the kerosene oil in the lamp and you light it with the matches and you get the light at night,” Moses told SEARCHLIGHT this week, just days after the St Electricity Services Limited (VINLEC) commemorated the 90th anniversary of electrification in the country.

On May 25, 1931, the first electrical lights were switched on in Kingstown. According to records of the events, power was only provided to 31 customers at night time, in the initial phase.

It was not until 6 years later in 1937, that all day electricity services were made available to 478 customers.

Moses, soon to be SVG’s latest centenarian, recalled the first time she received power in her home, but it was not when she was a little girl living with her parents.

She said it was in the 1960’, that time she was in her 40’s and living on her own.

Thornley Myers, the Chief Executive Officer of VINLEC said that most likely, electricity in the 1930’s were mostly for businesses and just a few citizens.

“The network grew from there and expanded outwards, from Kingstown to the suburbs so to speak, and in 1952, the South Rivers hydro plant started operation,” he said.

That first engine being turned on in South Rivers marked the beginning of a new era, both as it relates to the electrification of rural areas in St Vincent, and also the beginning of renewable energy being used to generate power.

Myers told SEARCHLIGHT that the whole plant became effective as of 1955. A second power plant at Richmond was
commissioned in 1961, which began the process of electrification on the western side of the mainland.

“It was not until the 1980’s that you had really a fully integrated electricity system in St Vincent where power flow from Richmond, South Rivers, to Kingstown and then of course, the Cane Hall power station which was commissioned in the mid-1970’s; so it was not until the 1980’s that you had a fully integrated electricity system,” the CEO said.

Eventually the first ever power plant in Kingstown, where VINLEC is headquartered today, was decommissioned after it became obsolete.

90 years of electrification in SVG
Thornley Myers

When St Vincent first received electricity, the services were operated by the Commonwealth Development Corporation. In 1971, the government acquired 49 per cent of the shares and later acquired more shares, becoming sole shareholders in 1985.

While public electricity was first supplied in the 1930’s, the company as we know it today, St Vincent Electricity Services (VINLEC) was officially registered 60 years ago. It will commemorate its 60th anniversary on November 27 this year.

With the continuous advancements in electricity in St Vincent and the Grenadines, kerosene lamps are almost definitely a thing of the past.

The 99-year-old woman, who celebrates her 100th birthday on June 1, told SEARCHLIGHT that while she has a kerosene lamp from her parents, it serves only as a souvenir, especially since kerosene oil is difficult to come by these days.

She suspects that now people are more used to using lanterns with batteries when there are power outages.

Certainly, VINLEC has invested millions within the last 40 years to enhance the technical and managerial capacity of the company to better serve and provide electricity services to Vincentians.

Myers noted that in the 80’s, someone attending the cinema would more than likely not have been able to see the full movie because the company would have had to take off power in that area so that other areas could be supplied.

“Today, no such event would be allowed to take place…,” he said.

Connecting the hydro plant at Cumberland with the Cane Hall power station using a 33,000-volt line goes down in history as a major activity for electrical service in SVG as it strengthened the infrastructure to transmit and distribute power.

CEO Myers also said that the 15 years spanning the mid-1980’s and 2000 represent a period of massive electrification. In this time, access to electricity grew from just 50 per cent of the population, to over 90 per cent.

Currently, it is estimated that 98 per cent of the population has access to electricity.

“Electricity is important for business, it is important for social, economic, educational advancement and there is recognition of that,” Myers said.

“One of the issues… the man on the street may not recognise is that during this period of COVID, our operations, the maintenance of our system has been disrupted.”

He explained that several students enrolled at secondary and tertiary level education institutions are at home doing online classes and other activities that require electricity.

“…Once we recognise that that was happening, our planned maintenance programme…we do where we have to take off power to do them…we have not been doing them at the time when we would have been doing them…we operate a business, but we understand what that business means to the lives and livelihoods of people in the communities,” Myers said.

Several other challenges compound the provision of electricity in SVG, namely the change in fuel surcharge, the cost of electricity to consumers, the terrain of the country and high fixed costs to operate the entity and an overall lack of engineers.

However, Myers believes there is hope for electricity, especially when one looks to renewable sources.

VINLEC owns and operates nine power plants across the country. The diesel power stations are located at Cane Hall, Lowmans Bay, Bequia, Union Island, Canouan and Mayreau, while the hydro plants are located at Cumberland, Richmond and South Rivers.

“Renewable energy gave an impetus to rural electrification in the 1950’s. I think renewable energy in the 2020s will help to stabilise cost and also hopefully, reduce the cost of electricity. So, I think going forward, what we will see a greater emphasis on, is on renewable and specifically solar PV,” he said.

Myers noted that the thrust of geothermal is not considered dead as discussions are still ongoing, but solar power and energy storage systems, through utility batteries also hold a significant place in the future of electricity in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

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