Light-theft task force working overtime
Julian Robinson, GUEST COLUMNIST
I am extremely disappointed that although The Gleaner had a reporter cover the formal launch of the partnership between the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) and the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) last Tuesday to reduce electricity theft, your editorial of Thursday, November 20, 2014 ('Fixing electricity theft') has sought to question the work of the task force established by the prime minister and chaired by me to address this matter.
The formal launch of the partnership last Tuesday reflects months of work that has been undertaken by the Electricity Task Force in collaboration with the JPS, the JSIF and other stakeholders.
I wish to make the following points, which were highlighted in my presentation at the launch on Tuesday.
1. Very early in the deliberations of the task force, it was acknowledged that the solution to the problem of electricity theft had to go beyond the methods that had been previously tried by JPS. For example, when 'throw-ups' are removed by JPS and the police, in most cases after the JPS team leaves the community, these throw-ups are reconnected. Other solutions that have been implemented, such as anti-theft meters, have been compromised by the ingenuity of residents in the community.
It was, therefore, felt that the solutions to electricity theft had to be holistic and address the root causes, hence the inclusion of social intervention.
2. It is important to note that they are many reasons why persons steal electricity. Some cannot afford to wire their homes and have it passed by the Government Electrical Inspectorate office, which are prerequisites in obtaining electricity from JPS. The cost of this process is approximately $50,000, which is beyond the means of most who steal electricity.
3. Many of those who steal electricity live in informal settlements or squatter communities and have no legal ownership of their premises or no rental arrangements with a landlord, which are requirements in obtaining electricity legally from the JPS.
4. There are others who steal electricity because of their socio-economic circumstances.
5. And finally, there is a category of those who steal because they can do it and get away with it.
The solutions proposed by the task force are intended to address all four categories. The task force, to begin with, decided to launch a pilot programme in seven communities in the Corporate Area where there is high incidence of electricity theft and severe socio-economic challenges.
There was recognition that it was critically important to involve the political directorate directly in solving this problem, and as a result, consultations began in these communities. The commitment of the political leadership of the country in addressing this problem is evident in the seven communities selected for the pilot project.
Three (Whitfield Town, Payne Land, and Majesty Gardens) of the communities are in the constituency of South West St Andrew, represented by the prime minister. One (Tower Hill) is in the West Central Andrew, represented by the opposition leader; one (Arnett Gardens) in South St Andrew, represented by Dr Omar Davies; and another (Denham Town) in West Kingston, represented by Desmond McKenzie. Finally, as the chair of the Task Force, I decided to lead by example by including a community (McGregor Gardens) from my own constituency of South East St Andrew.
ACTIVITIES IN MCGREGOR GARDENS
I will use the activities in McGregor Gardens to highlight the work of the task force since its formation.
1. Five community consultation meetings have taken place with the residents, the political directorate, including the MP and councillor and representatives from the JPS and the JSIF.
2. One hundred residents will be selected shortly to have their homes rewired as part of the pilot project
3. The JPS has established a temporary office at the McGregor Gardens Community Centre where residents can have access to JPS personnel and sign up for this pilot project.
4. A community liaison officer has been recruited by the JPS to act as the interface between the JPS and the community.
5. Four residents of the community have been selected to undergo training in house wiring and electrical installation, for which they will receive certification from the HEART Trust/NTA.
6. The JPS has commenced the installation of additional poles and wires to upgrade the electrical infrastructure in the community. This is a critical prerequisite for the pilot as the existing infrastructure could not facilitate adding new customers to the electricity grid.
It should be noted that in a number of communities, including in the pilot, work had begun to address the issue of electricity theft prior to the formation of the task force.
In addition to the pilot project, there are a number of other proposals that are being considered to solve the problem of electricity theft.
1. The establishment of a window under the PATH Fund to provide graduated subsidises based on affordability for illegal customers to make legal connections. In the event they are caught stealing, the services will be discontinued.
2. The introduction of a subsidised tariff subject to a means test with an established quota.
3. The introduction of prepaid meters, which is similar to the concept of prepaid telephone credit, to allow customers to pay according to what they can afford.
4. Another proposal being considered by the Government is to ban the use of incandescent bulbs and to consider incentives to make the purchase of energy-efficient alternatives affordable to the general public. Recent studies have shown that the replacement of incandescent bulbs can have a significant impact in reducing energy consumption.
The JPS estimates that those persons who steal electricity consume on average three times the amount of paying customers. Given this fact, a critical component of the pilot project will involve public education around energy conservation and use.
One example of this will involve looking at the installation of rubber seals around refrigerators, which can account for significant energy leakage and, therefore, consumption.
Finally, the Government, through the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, will be tabling amendments to the Electricity Act before the end of this fiscal year to increase the fines and penalties for those who are caught stealing electricity and to broaden the definition of what constitutes electricity theft.
Julian Robinson is chair of the task force to address electricity theft and minister of state in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com