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Editorial | Too many blackouts, Ms Tomblin

Published:Tuesday | August 30, 2016 | 8:00 AM

A major strength of Kelly Tomblin, the CEO of Jamaica's monopoly light and power company, is her readiness to engage her customers, even when they are angry and she has little with which to appease them. So, in four years on the job, among her more significant achievements is humanising the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS).

Our bet is that in a survey of the public perception of, and attitude towards, Jamaica's corporations, JPS would no longer be near the bottom where it used to be, notwithstanding the equanimity and courageous effort, without much support, of someone like the corporate spokesperson Winsome Callum. We, therefore, have no doubt that Ms Tomblin will be open and transparent with the investigation into last Saturday night's islandwide power outage.

"We have nothing to hide," she told this newspaper.

Indeed, Ms Tomblin has preliminarily indicated that there may have been "a procedural error which resulted in a number of generating units going off line simultaneously". There is, however, a technical 'why' behind the breadth of the collapse which still needs to be answered.

For, while someone may have done something wrong, that ought not to have led to this wide-scale shutdown. "... So we have to look to see if it's a design or engineering issue," Ms Tomblin explained.

Indeed, electricity generating, transmission and distribution systems are usually, and increasingly, configured to prevent these cascading events. People have been acutely aware of such problems, especially since the New York City blackout of 1977 and the 2003 great power outage in north-east USA and parts of Canada that started with a problem with a power line in Ohio.

The issue for Ms Tomblin, therefore, is not only to identify the problem and tell the JPS' more than half a million account holders. More important is to get the damn thing fixed. These cascading events that leave large swathes of Jamaica - if not the entire island - without power for extended periods happen too often.

 

SPATE OF BLACKOUTS

 

It was only in April, four and a half months ago, that there was another of these big outages. That one was blamed on a problem that arose from removing power lines to facilitate the widening of the road in the Three Miles area of Kingston.

In January 2008, an islandwide blackout was traced to the collapse of a rotted utility pole at the JPS' Tredegar substation in St Catherine. This event raised issues about the company's maintenance protocols. Prior to that, in July 2007, there was another big blackout, which originated at the company's electricity-generating facility at Old Harbour, St Catherine. A year earlier, in July 2006, a similar outage was blamed on a fault on a 138KV transmission line from JPS' power plant in Bogue, St James, to Duncans, Trelawny.

In the face of that event, Canadian consultants were hired to advise on how to prevent these catastrophes. They, however, didn't prevent the subsequent events, including that one late night of August 5, 2012 as Jamaica prepared to ring in its 50th anniversary of Independence, or the one in March 2013, blamed on a problem at the Duhaney substation.

It shouldn't be beyond the capacity of the JPS to prevent these events happening so frequently, even without a new generating plant.