Friday, March 22, 2019
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) yesterday revealed it is investigating whether itself and its customers have fallen victim to the same "fake" energy-saving devices impacting Grand Bahama.
The state-owned utility's executives were tight-lipped on specifics, but confirmed it is taking measures to determine whether it suffered financial losses as a result of businesses and households consuming significant quantities of electricity that were never paid for.
"There are plans to do certain things," Dr Donovan Moxey, BPL's chairman, said when contacted by Tribune Business. He declined to provide details, other than saying BPL planned to issue a media statement "in response to all of what is going on and let the public know what BPL's perspective is".
Quincy Parker, BPL's spokesperson, added: "We are aware of the Grand Bahama Power Company's release and we have our own internal investigations that are ongoing. I can't say more than that. We will have a statement in due course."
Multiple Tribune Business sources have repeatedly said the same so-called "energy saving devices" at the centre of Grand Bahama's "electricity theft" controversy have been widely sold, and installed, in New Providence and the Family Islands - often by the same persons and companies involved in Freeport.
Given that BPL has a much larger customer base than GB Power, standing at more than 100,000 businesses and residences, the state-owned utility could face a much higher potential financial exposure if many Nassau clients were suckered into the scheme.
As Tribune Business revealed, and was subsequently confirmed by GB Power, many installers of these "energy saving devices" exploited the desperation of numerous businesses and households to reduce electricity bills that had become equivalent to a second mortgage, eliminating corporate profits and shrinking household disposable income.
While sold as "magical boxes", they were nothing of the sort - as confirmed by GB Power, which said many were "fake" and did nothing for energy saving and/or conservation. In order to produce the promised savings, the Freeport-based utility provider said the installations it uncovered had resorted to either bypassing or tampering with electricity meters to under-record actual consumption.
Such actions are illegal, with GB Power arguing that customers who had fallen for such deception were "victims of a fraud" that delivered no actual energy savings. The utility, which is 100 percent owned by Canadian-based Emera, added that it, too, was a victim because not all customer energy consumption was being recorded - resulting in underbillings and financial losses.
While it remains to be seen whether BPL and its customers face a similar scenario, GB Power yesterday evening unveiled an "emergency remediation programme" to address a problem that it confirmed was widespread in Freeport and Grand Bahama.
Conceding it still does not know how many "fake energy saving devices" and installations exist, the utility said in a statement that "it is now understood that many residents and businesses are operating under the belief that they have purchased an 'energy saving device' from a local electrical contractor".
Reiterating that these devices were "fake and a smokescreen for electricity diversion", GB Power warned it would report businesses and homeowners who had them installed to the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) unless they came forward to agree a "satisfactory resolution" - for the utility provider, at least - in the form an acceptable payment plan to cover the electricity that was consumed but not paid for.
It called on all customers to "urgently" report the presence of the "fake" boxes and associated equipment to it, so that GB Power personnel can inspect it and "address any immediate safety risks" - a process that could result in short-term power outages.
"GB Power will make reasonable arrangements for customers to pay for the electricity which has been used but not metered and billed," the utility's statement said. "Where GB Power and the customer reach a satisfactory resolution, no complaint will be made to law enforcement." Therein lies the consequences for those that do not comply with the energy monopoly and settle on its terms.
Carlson Shurland, attorney for the Cooper family and its three fast food franchises, whose disconnection by GB Power first exposed the situation, yesterday said his clients were due to meet GB Power executives early next week to determine the way forward.
He added that power had only been restored to two of the family's seven combined Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Pollo Tropical outlets, and queried why the utility had seemingly "targeted" these franchises.
"The real issue is nobody is out there stealing electricity. My clients honestly believed they were putting in an energy saving device," Mr Shurland told Tribune Business. "Why would the Power Company target my clients and not take the same approach with others? They've already confirmed other places were involved and they've not been disconnected.
"If they [GB Power] could show some humility and acknowledge they've made a mistake everybody can move on.... I'm pretty confident the Power Company was premature in their statement that power was being stolen and meters tampered with."
Mr Shurland criticised GB Power for "the embarrassment and trauma they put my client through", adding that he "doesn't necessarily" agree that energy saving devices and conservation is illegal.
GB Power, though, produced photos to back its argument that some of the so-called “devices” were simply boxes containing wiring that did nothing at all, while purported capacitors were just boxes filled with sand and dirt.
However, Grand Bahama's utility monopoly has continued to take heavy social media fire from persons who are blaming the problems uncovered on its high electricity prices and volatile power supply.
Pastor Eddie Victor, head of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens (CCC), a long-time GB Power critic, said these woes were directly responsible for making businesses and residences vulnerable to exploitation by purveyors of so-called "energy saving devices".
Urging the Cooper family to have an independent assessment performed by qualified electricians, not GB Power, he questioned whether the utility was acting as judge, jury and executioner by acting as both complainant and investigator in the matter.
Emphasising that meter bypasses and tampering was wrong, Pastor Victor told Tribune Business: "For over five years we have made it very clear that the Power Company has been ruining the economy and created this culture of high electricity costs that caused businesses and consumers to find ways to save money.
"In that environment you will find persons taking advantage of the desire to find ways to reduce electricity costs. That's the problem. The cost of electricity is too high on the island, and delivery of the current to the customer is not stable and frequently causing problems for electrical equipment. People have been losing equipment.
"You have a bigger problem that led to this problem. We need to change that. The bigger problem is the high cost of electricity which led to this. We need to see that cost come down."
GB Power would likely argue that it has taken multiple measures to reduce, or at least contain, energy costs via initiatives such as its three-year rate stability, fuel hedging programme and not passing on the $27m Hurricane Matthew restoration costs - thereby avoiding some of BPL's issues.
However, some observers have argued that GB Power's guaranteed minimum 10 percent return on investment against operational costs and capital improvements has contributed to keeping energy prices relatively high even though it can bring in fuel and equipment duty-free under Freeport's bonded goods regime.