Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Editorial | Plan for underground power lines

Published:Monday | February 10, 2020 | 12:16 AM

Whatever may be the final ruling in the legal fight between the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) and the residents of Hope Pastures in St Andrew over how their electricity should be delivered, the case highlights a serious public-policy matter that the Government should have on its agenda.

The residents, nearly 100 of whom have a direct stake in the case, insist that JPS, the monopoly electricity transmission company, has an obligation to run their power lines underground, rather than overhead, as has been the case for over half a century.

The company, on the other hand, argues that not only it is not so committed, but that upgrading the old underground system would be too expensive. If the citizens want to go that route, they would have to pay the difference between the costs of having overhead lines and installing new underground infrastructure.

Two years ago, the now chief justice, Bryan Sykes, agreed with the company. The citizens’ attempt to have his ruling overturned is currently being argued before the Court of Appeal.

When Hope Pastures was being developed in the early 1960s, it was envisioned as a model suburban community for the country’s professional elite and upwardly mobile middle class. Its developer, certified by the responsible minister as a housing association, was required to have its utility lines run underground. That pushed up the price of the provision of the electricity to the scheme by more than 300 per cent, which the owners shared by paying more for their homes.

Not only is the general absence of decrepit utility poles, with their webs of overhead line cables, an aesthetically pleasing feature of Hope Pastures, it has proved its value as a resilient infrastructure. When storms have knocked down power lines and disrupted electricity in Jamaica, such as Hurricane Gilbert, which smashed the island in 1988, Hope Pastures, invariably, is among the first to get back power.

In recent decades, however, the infrastructure has grown old and incapable of handling the growth of the community. The cheaper option, which JPS has been attempting to implement, is overhead wires. The citizens who have gone to court say they are entitled to the system that they already have, ostensibly by contract, and that JPS must foot the bill.

“The more time the court spends reflecting on the contract, the more the court is convinced that the residents’ position is unsupportable,” Justice Sykes said in the ruling now at appeal.

The contract in place was one between the developer and the JPS for the power company “to lay the cable, as a conduit for the electricity and the other between the residents and JPS, in which JPS agreed to supply the electricity and the residents to pay for the supply. There is no contract between the JPS and the residents regarding the underground cable”.

Added Justice Sykes: “The approved scheme is silent on who should replace the underground cable, should that be required. In keeping with the analysis so far, unless the documentation made explicit provision for that replacement obligation to be on JPS, then there is no rational basis to infer that JPS took up such a responsibility. This perhaps explains why in this entire case, there has been no talk of a contract between the residents and JPS for the supply of electricity by underground cable.”

25-YEAR PLAN

The larger question, with respect to public policy as opposed to private contract, is what is better for Jamaica. Obviously, underground cables.

After Hurricane Ivan in 2004, it cost JPS more than J$1 billion (much more today) and many months of work to repair damaged power lines. The assumption is that global warming and climate change will cause more extreme weather events that put infrastructure at greater risk.

Seeking ways to better protect them makes sense. Placing power and other utility lines underground is one obvious solution. That would be an expensive undertaking but one that can be planned towards.

As we have suggested before, the Government should suggest that JPS develop a 25-year plan, inclusive of costs, with proposals for its funding, to place its distribution lines underground in major urban centres.

That should lead to public discussion and analysis by the Office of Utilities Regulation to test JPS’s assumptions ahead of implementation.