The Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), the monopoly distributor of electricity across the island, lamented this past weekend that it has lost US$30 million to electricity theft so far this year, and spends another US$30 million annually on technology to curb the piracy. Combined, that represents the equivalent of J$5.4 billion that inflates the cost of power to Jamaican households and businesses teetering on the edge of survival.
“About 14 per cent of the electricity produced by JPS is stolen, and the cost of this theft is shared by both JPS and our customers,” says Kelly Tomblin, JPS’s president and CEO.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. Jamaica’s electricity costs are meteoric because of JPS’s outdated plants, which deliver energy inefficiently.
Energy cost, as this newspaper has repeatedly emphasised in these columns, is the most crucial factor behind the uncompetitiveness of the Jamaican economy. This handicap puts Jamaica at a severe disadvantage internationally and against regional neighbours such as Trinidad and Tobago, on which misplaced rage has been directed for its one-sided trade relationship, on which Jamaica is running a deficit of nearly US$1 billion on mostly oil imports.
Scores, if not hundreds, of businesses that have foundered name electricity cost to be among the main reasons, if not the primary one, for their collapse. Jamaica pays up to US$0.40 per kilowatt-hour for energy – JPS will be quick to remind that August’s rate was eight cents cheaper – six times that of Trinidad and Tobago.
Phillip Paulwell, the energy minister, has been a vigorous cheerleader for the dismantling of the monopoly, which he believes will drive down costs to consumers.
Mr Paulwell predicates his vision for a liberalised electricity sector on foreign investors indulging their appetite among a Jamaican population willing to give its hand to the suitor with the sweetest proposal. But Mr Paulwell’s romanticised notions seem to ignore the compelling reality that investors may not gamble money on Jamaica’s unreliable national security structure.
LAW AND ORDER ON HOLIDAY?
The maintenance of law and order is the fundamental role of government, the glue that holds society and the economy together. It is on that score that the Jamaican Government has been found wanting.
JPS, which has decades-old roots in the Jamaican economy, may be less minded to disengage because of the breadth of its capital investment, even if it has to spend an extra US$30 million a year. A new company, however, may be less inclined to yawn at such write-offs for crime.
Politicians of both the ruling People’s National Party and the opposition Jamaica Labour Party have generally winked at the problem of electricity theft. Most inner-city communities are cobwebbed with illegal connections. And unscrupulous business operators and wealthy suburban householders are big on the gig. The police do little to prevent it.
The numbers bear the tale. According to JPS, “Since the start of the year, 38 persons have been arrested for illegal abstraction of electricity, over 5,700 meter irregularities have been discovered, and 14,000 illegal ‘throw-up’ lines removed across the island.” But that’s a drop in the bucket.
Government had better get serious about electricity theft. Or its overtures to investors might be equated with wooing a lover without the vow of protection.