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Regulator denies knowledge of JPS anti-theft programme despite board member’s claim

Published:Saturday | October 23, 2021 | 12:09 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
File 
JPS board member Danville Walker.
File JPS board member Danville Walker.
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Danville Walker, one of two members named by the Government to sit on the board of the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), has dismissed claims by the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) that it was unaware of the theft-deterrent programme...

Danville Walker, one of two members named by the Government to sit on the board of the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), has dismissed claims by the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) that it was unaware of the theft-deterrent programme instituted by the light and power company that triggered frequent hours-long outages in some communities.

In a no-holds-barred interview on Thursday, Walker said that the OUR is screaming incompetence if it did not know of the programme.

“We need to own this. The OUR is the regulator. It needs to own this. So I will say to you, the OUR can claim incompetence if it did not know, but it cannot claim lack of knowledge. To say it did not know is being untruthful or incompetent,” Walker told The Sunday Gleaner.

Last weekend, the OUR said that it only became aware of the JPS’s transformer protection pilot programme on October 4, after it pressed the power company for a response to customer complaints from as early as July.

On Friday, the regulator doubled down when our news team sought a response to claims that it had been aware of the programme before this month.

“The OUR maintains that it was kept in the dark about this project. As stated in our media release on 2021 October 15, it was on 2021 October 4 when JPS responded to our queries that the OUR was apprised for the first time of this project,” OUR Public Relations Specialist Elizabeth Bennett Marsh said, challenging anyone to provide evidence to the contrary.

On Thursday, Walker said that during discussions of what the programme would have entailed, he did not believe the efforts of the JPS were unreasonable.

“The decision was taken to put the breakers in place to protect the customers you have by installing these smart transformers that would trip once there was excess demand. In my view, there was nothing to be alarmed about,” he explained, noting that electricity theft was widespread, with Kingston and St Andrew and Clarendon having the highest levels.

A Jamaica problem

“This is not a JPS problem. This is a Jamaica problem. We, as a country, must decide what we want. Do we want to return the JPS to Government – because we know how well Government can run things – or do we put in the proper mechanisms in place for the company to receive the return on its investments to update equipment and, therefore, better serve? What do we want?” Walker asked.

For him, a JPS return to government control would see Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke going to Parliament in record time asking for billions in subsidies as it would once again become a “loss making, free-for-all entity”.

“We need to make up our minds. We have been there. It is not making the profit they were told, Far from it. So the investments for upgrade cannot be made,” said Walker, adding that his business entity at the end of a street is suffering heavily from electricity theft, forcing him to purchase a generator.

He said there was collective failure on all parts, especially on methods to deter theft.

“Look at what we have done under the Disaster Risk Management Act (DRMA). Man pays $20,000 for not wearing a mask. You catch him today and tomorrow him gone court to pay the money. Yet you catch a man stealing light, and months later, him still not in court. Why can’t we have legislation like the DRMA to deal with this. We are joking,” Walker said, referencing orders made to combat coronavirus transmission.

He would like to see stiffer penalties introduced to deter electricity theft and night or commercial courts to quickly dispense with such cases.

In the wake of the OUR directive, JPS CEO Michel Gantois said that electricity theft has resulted in at least 110 premature transformer failures between January 2020 and August 2021, racking up a replacement bill of more than $25 million.

“We are shocked that the OUR would frustrate our efforts to protect our equipment and manage outages faced by our customers due to unauthorised overload,” he said in a release, adding that the ruling would make it more difficult for the JPS to provide reliable service to customers in some communities because of the recurring damage to equipment.

“It is unfair that this equipment failure replacement cost is borne by JPS and its paying customers. Good customers will face long outages while we dispatch our teams to replace equipment which will invariably be destroyed again,” said Gantois.

Walker insisted that the programme was morally and ethically sound as it was unfair to blame only the “small man” for electricity theft.

“People are running businesses from illegal abstraction of electricity. The few bulbs by the small man is nothing compared to block-making machines, air conditioners, and other heavy-usage [equipment],” he stated.

Three-fold dilemma

University lecturer Dr Sandra McCalla agrees.

“Some individuals believe that their actions should not be restricted by having an obligation to others. These individuals are free-rider egoists. Persons who steal electricity at the expense of others, for example, can be placed in this category as they do not believe that they have a direct obligation to either JPS or members of the community who pay for their illegal activities,” she explained.

“On one hand, it can be argued that JPS is justified in its approach to protecting its assets as the company has lost millions of dollars due to electricity theft. However, on the other hand, the action, though justified, is not just since paying customers are affected,” said the senior lecturer in ethics, who noted that while the company had a right to protect its equipment, it should not be at the expense of paying citizens.

“The aim is to provide justice for all through fair measures,” she told The Sunday Gleaner, noting that the problem was a three-fold dilemma. “The first involves the rights of the company to protect its assets. The second involves the customers’ rights to uninterrupted and reliable electricity, and the third involves determining what just and fair punishment entails.

“One may ask if one dilemma takes precedence over the other. Or should all three be given equal consideration? … If JPS ignores the right of the paying clients, it commits the ethical breach of treating clients as means to an end and not as ends in themselves.”

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com