Gebe goes for solar and upgrade of water distribution network

POSTED: 08/12/15 4:24 PM




Iris Arrindell is the first female employee of Gebe to be promoted to a managerial position as the company’s commercial manager. To her right is Chief Financial Officer René Gartner. Photo Today / Hilbert Haar


St. Maarten – Utilities Company Gebe has brought down the water losses on its distribution network from 40 to 30 percent and it has another 10 percent to go, Chief Financial Officer René Gartner said in his first press conference since the departure of Chief Operating Officer Rennie Maduro.

“There are a lot of old waterlines and they have to be replaced,” Gartner said. “We will use new materials, pipes that are more resistant and that last longer than the old ones.”

Cutting down the water losses will also have an effect on the price for consumers, but Gartner did not have a number ready to indicate how far the water price would go down.

Gebe is in discussion with the fire department about its water consumption. “They use a lot of water for their exercises and those are not metered,” Gartner said. “We need to properly assess the amount of water they use.”

Part of the drive to become more efficient is the expansion of the number of water tanks and the replacement of old tanks. Currently the storage capacity in the tanks is for less than two days, and Gebe wants to increase this.

The company will also replace analog water meters with digital ones that have monitoring capabilities. “We will be able to look into the water consumption of our clients and determine whether there is a leak, backflow, or tampering,” Gartner said.

The modern meters will also have potential beneficial effects for consumers. “We could tell the client, hey, you have a problem after the meter, so check your plumbing. That is better than waiting a few months and getting a huge bill, followed by big discussions with our company.”

Gartner said that water losses at other distribution companies vary wildly. “In the Dominican Republic it is 50 percent and in Aruba just 5 percent,” he said. “In Aruba most people live along one flat strip. You drop in one large line and you are good to go. In St. Maarten, the terrain is a challenge. We have to go over hills and through rocky terrain.”

Gebe will also replace traditional electricity-meters with digital once, but this process will go at a slower pace. “That is because we feel that better water meters have a larger impact on our clients,” Gartner said.

The Gebe-manager said that solar energy is “the most feasible source of alternative energy for St. Maarten” and that studies are currently underway. Based on those studies, Gebe and the government will be able “to focus on a single direction.”

Gebe will install 2 Megawatt of solar power on government buildings and on the power plant in Cay Bay, but it will stop there, because installing solar panels on other buildings “poses a number of risks Gebe does not feel it is its responsibility to take.”

These risks are for instance roof leakages after solar panels have been installed. “People could come to us and say, my roof started leaking the day after your guys came to work on it. We don’t need that risk.”

Gartner addressed questions from this newspaper about the uncertainty among citizens who are interested in installing solar power. The traditional electricity meters run backwards when solar power kicks in, but with electronic meters the power company will be able to set a limit to the amount of energy solar-owners are allowed to give back to the grid. This affects their return on investment.

“The government will have to write policy. We are lagging behind the curve,” Gartner admitted, adding that he sees acceleration” in the amount of solar power citizens and businesses are installing.

Currently, solar power negatively affects revenue of the power company. In Curacao, the impact on Aqualectra was so high, that the company put the brakes on new solar installations.

“The government will have to come up with procedures for installing solar,” Gartner said. “We cannot be the installers and the inspectors at the same time.”

The lack of proper legislation leaves solar-oriented citizens to wonder about their situation. “It is not as clear cut as one would expect,” Gartner said. “Production of up to 500 Kilowatt is permitted, above that, people need a permit. What is also missing is certification for installers. If something goes wrong, people will look at Gebe. The conditions for hooking up to the grid must be made clear.”

Gartner clarified Gebe’s involvement with the waste-to-energy plant that is scheduled to be built on Pond Island. On March 5, 2014 Claudius Buncamper, head of Vromi’s infrastructure management department, said at a meeting of the St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association that the waste-to-energy plant would be operational in the beginning of 2016 but so far there is no agreement and building the facility will take at least a year. The plan is supposed to process 100,000 tons of garbage per year and sell the electricity it produces to Gebe.

“This is a complicated story,” Gartner said. “We are working on it but we do not want to find ourselves in a situation whereby we commit Gebe for a very long time in a disadvantageous position. We are studying this carefully.”

Garnet said that several months ago, the company rejected a proposal “because of the cost element.” The problem was that, under this proposal, the waste-to-energy plant would deliver energy at a higher cost than what Gebe spends to produce its electricity.

“If we can do something that is beneficial to the company and to the country, that’s fine,” Gartner said. But if it is financially devastating to the company, we say wait a minute.”

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