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Blackout Averted: Crisis meeting averts more blackouts

APC, a private electricity provider owned by the Hadeed family group of companies, had throughout the day steadily cut back its contribution to the national grid.

This was in response to the persistent failure of the state-owned Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA) to settle a mammoth debt (now standing at almost EC $37M), for the power generation services that the independent supplier has been contracted to provide.

According to APUA in a press release yesterday, APC had been carrying out its threat to choke off its usual input of 34.5 megawatts to the national grid peak of 51 megawatts.

APC had provided a timeline for the steady reduction of its 61 per cent input to the total supply, cutting this to 16 megawatts by 9 am, and then to 11 megawatts by 2 pm yesterday – saying it would finally close the tap altogether by 4 pm if all the money were not paid.

“This action by APC has forced APUA to rely solely on its own generating capacity, which can currently supply 20 megawatts to the grid,” The APUA statement said. It added, “This shortfall has forced load-shedding activities and consumers are asked to be prepared.”

By then several areas were already hit by power outages during the course of the day, as a result of the forced load-shedding. These included Cassada Gardens, Golden Grove, New Winthorpes, Herberts and Liberta, to name a few.

The prospect of a major blackout loomed as evening approached, but for an emergency Cabinet meeting lasting throughout much of yesterday and attended by representatives of APUA and APC. These included APUA chairman Clarvis Joseph and APC’s lawyer Dane Hamilton, QC.

As 4 pm approached, a call to APC’s general manager Calid Hassad confirmed that they were awaiting the outcome of the Cabinet meeting before deciding whether to cut off the remaining power.

That answer came on the stroke of 5:30 when Hamilton told OBSERVER “We have restored the electricity. I gave instructions that the electricity should be restored.”

Hamilton would not disclose what “compromise” had been struck, but said it did not mean the crisis had been completely averted. “What we are doing is trying to work our way toward a solution,” he stated, adding, “and I am pretty sure that by early next week we would have arrived at a solution that is fair to APC and fair to APUA.”

Hamilton said APC had been put in a position where it could not meet its debts and obligations to bankers, insurers and workers, because of APUA’s failure to pay.

During the day, there was muted discussion about whether – if it came to the worst – government would invoke The Emergency Powers Act in order to prevent the large-scale blackouts, which an APC shutdown could portend. The declaration of an emergency could make it possible for government to compel APC to continue generating electricity, and even permit the state to commandeer the private entity’s power plants and associated facilities.

But two senior lawyers on differing sides of the main political divide dismissed the likelihood of that happening. Attorney General Justin Simon QC and opposition MP Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin both said such a drastic measure would be entirely uncalled for or unnecessary in the circumstances, and that continued negotiations were the way to go. Benjamin and Simon expressed confidence that these negotiations would yield a solution or settlement – an optimism apparently vindicated by day’s end.

APUA, for its part, chose to cap its stressful Thursday with a second press release, which curiously, made no mention of the Cabinet-brokered reprieve. Instead it noted that a consent order had committed APUA to discharge its debt owed to APC by monthly payments of one million EC dollars,plus weekly payments of EC $1.2M to service current debt.

It added: “APUA has not ignored this obligation, but has striven to meet it, and in most instances has not been able to meet the full stipulated amounts. Between the date of the judgment and now, APUA has paid to APC EC $42M. Despite this payment, APC has also chosen to charge interest of 12 per cent on the outstanding amount. This has placed a severe strain on the company . . .”

Throughout the day, telephone calls and text messages sent by this reporter to APUA chairman Clarvis Joseph, general manager Esworth Martin and electricity division manager Lyndon Francis went unanswered.

This may or may not have had to do with one of the four questions posed. It concerned persistent, though unconfirmed, reports that just when APUA’s plugs are being ripped out of APC’s sockets, four or five of the six generators at the highly touted Wadadli Power Plant are again down.

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