Legal light at last! - Pre-paid JPS meters welcomed by residents of McGregor Gardens
For about $500 every two weeks, Gwendolyn Stewart, a 56-year-old McGregor Gardens resident, is able to power the house she occupies with prepaid electricity she purchases from the Vineyard Town Post Office in South East St Andrew.
Like many of her neighbours, Stewart is learning to live within her means, and so energy conservation has become second nature to her.
Her community was among several identified for an antielectricity theft pilot project which saw the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) partnering with the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) to install prepaid meters under a Community Renewal Programme.
This means that the majority of the residents now have to pay upfront for the amount of electricity they want to use.
“I don’t have a television, I don’t have a radio, I don’t have a fridge. Is only like when I am ironing for when I am going out on the road, and when I come in I turn on the light. As soon as I finish doing what I am doing in the house, I lock off the light,” said Stewart.
Previously, illegal throw-ups on light posts would have guaranteed a fairly steady supply of electricity from the JPS power grid at no cost to most of the residents of what was once McGregor Gully.
But the JPS has removed many of these throw-ups, rewired more than 200 houses to get prepaid service, and installed 15 LED street lights to cut back on energy consumption in the community.
Some of the residents are still trying to get the hang of the new way of life, and their challenges are often highlighted when they gather every Tuesday at the McGregor Gardens Community Centre for their community meeting and energy-conservation session with representatives of the JPS.
When The Sunday Gleaner visited one of the Tuesday meetings, the residents were out in their numbers at the solar-powered community centre to learn more conservation measures.
“I really don’t have any issues using the prepaid, you know, because I always top up. I don’t make it run out, and whenever time I am going to do anything, I look at it and see how I’m using it. I press (iron) only one time a week and I don’t see it burn a lot of current,” said Lydia Allen, who was among the residents at the community centre.
“I just top up like when I have money. I just put on a $2,000 or a $1,500 and then I watch it. I will look at the kilowatt, because if I buy a $2,000 worth, the kilowatt is about 96, so it can last me for about three weeks going four,” she said.
The introduction of the prepaid system has forced many of the residents to become creative. One shopkeeper told The Sunday Gleaner that she freezes her juices then plug out her freezer for a day or two and purchase ice to cool them instead, so she can conserve on her energy usage.
“Mi like dah system here,” she said.
Like her, member of parliament for the area, Julian Robinson, believes the installation of the devices has been one of the best things for the community, where the stealing of electricity was a way of life for many residents for decades.
Robinson knows at first hand the impact of electricity theft on the energy sector since, before the change in administration, he was chairman of the task force to address electricity theft and minister of state in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining.
“Before this, 90 per cent of the people were not paying, so people would complain about low voltage, because the electrical capacity was low,” he said in describing the pre-existing situation in McGregor Gardens.
According to Robinson, there are several reasons why residents in informal communities like McGregor Gardens steal electricity.
Among them is the fact that many of the houses have not been wired to meet the standards to get electricity legally from the JPS.
Wiring a house could cost anywhere between $50,000 and $70,000, which is outside of the reach of many of the residents. In the case of McGregor Gardens, the JPS paid the money required to wire the houses.
“Second, if you don’t own your home and you don’t have a rental arrangement with a landlord, JPS is not going to give you legitimate light, so if you think about that, you will realise that there is a whole side of Jamaica that falls into the category that can’t get light,” explained Robinson.
The arrest of hundreds of residents over the last few years for electricity theft has not deterred individuals from engaging in the practice, and Robinson said the JPS estimates that about 200,000 persons are illegally connected to the national grid.
However, he feels that not every one of these individuals really want to be stealing electricity. He believes the pilot project in McGregor Gardens highlights the fact that people can become legalised once the necessary infrastructure is put in place.
“I think people get a sense of pride and dignity when they are not doing something illegal,” he said.
“At the end of the day, they said they were tired of having to hide from the police or JPS when they came in. They wanted to have legitimate electricity because they didn’t want their children see them having to pull down things and run, and that kind of thing,” Robinson noted.