OUT OF THE DARKNESS
. . . LIGHT
Pitcairn Island is isolated in mid-Pacific, and has no access to international power grids like those in the United States and Europe. Local power is produced by diesel generator―an expensive method at today's oil prices―and all fuel must be imported in 55 gallon drums aboard infrequent supply ships.
When we first arrived in March of 1982, power was only available five or six hours every evening and three hours each on Sunday and Thursday mornings. For this service the island paid more than $20,000 a year just for the diesel fuel. The government bore a heavy subsidy on power, for Pitcairners were only charged five cents per kilowatt-hour.
The main alternator, turned by a six-cylinder Lister engine, produced 72 kilowatts―more than enough to meet the needs of the community. A second four-cylinder unit stood nearby, and was used whenever the primary power plant needed to be shut down for repairs.
These generator/engine units usually required only occasional maintenance to keep them running smoothly, but the main power-plant failed early in November, 1982. Steve, Jay, and Tom discovered that the problem lay in a faulty fuel pump, and tried to repair it. But when they consulted the shop manual they found that the only instruction it gave advised them to replace the malfunctioning pump with a new one.
Steve ordered the new fuel pump immediately, and drafted the back-up alternator into full-time service. Trouble developed at once, as the smaller 52-kilowatt unit could not meet the demands of peak loads. Hardly an evening passed without at least one blackout due to the overloading of the main circuit-breaker. On some evenings the old machine failed several times, while Steve scurried back and forth from his home to the generator shed in order to restart the engine.
Pitcairners dusted off their kerosene lanterns and pressed them into service. Several homes kept lamps lit every evening so that when the power failed, they could continue their work without interruption. Other families relied upon their own private generators to light up the darkness.
November passed into history, and still no fuel pump. Blackouts occurred so frequently that islanders counted it a blessing to have even one evening without a power failure.
Then on Thursday morning, December 2, the standby generator's engine developed a loud knock in one cylinder, and had to be shut down for repairs. Everyone wondered if electricity would be available at all over the weekend. Steve, Brian, Dennis, Jay, Michael, and Terry spent the entire day, and part of Friday, overhauling the motor in order to put it back into service.
Not until early January did the fuel pump arrive. But the power problems did not end there. When the new pump was installed and the engine started, the generator itself threw sparks, and several windings burned out―caused by moisture collecting in the system during the long idle period in the humid island atmosphere.
Another generator was ordered from England in the hope that it would be put aboard a soon-coming Essi ship. Meanwhile the engineers removed the damaged unit and sent it off to New Zealand for rewinding. The Essi ship was delayed, however, and a supply ship came earlier than expected. So both generators arrived in Bounty Bay within a few days of each other.
As a result of this experience the Island Council decided to use the back-up generator for two hours every morning so as to keep the machine in good running order. The plan worked well, and no other major failures occurred during our term.
In January 1984, the Council extended electrical service to three hours each morning to allow for more profitable use of power tools, freezers, and other appliances.
Power outages like these emphasize the importance of light in our daily lives. These black-outs also reminded us of our need for spiritual light as well, for, as Isaiah said, "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light." Those who trust in God can say with confidence: "The Lord is my light and my salvation―whom shall I fear," (Isaiah 9:2; Psalm 27:1).