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EDITORIAL - Fixing electricity theft

Published:Thursday | November 20, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Whatever became of that task force on electricity theft that was supposed to have been headed by Julian Robinson, established by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller half a year ago when the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), the light and power company, threatened to shut off service to the communities where the thieving was worst?

If we are cynical, we might believe it was another of those schemes to have slipped through the cracks, forgotten by both its author and executor. Indeed, neither has said much, if anything, since the early days of its launch last May.

Except that a pilot project launched this week by the JPS and the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF), a mostly externally funded government poverty-alleviation agency, suggests that the search continues for solutions for what remains, for JPS, a serious financial problem, and for the rest of us, significant economic and social burden. So, we want the effort to be successful, but believe that the matter will require robust political engagement if it is to meet its long-term goals, which we hope is not the cause for the apparent somnolence of Mr Robinson's committee.

Fundamental issue

The fundamental issue is that JPS loses nearly 16 per cent of the electricity it produces, or around 26 per cent of what it sells to factors other than the technical ones related to power production and/or distribution. And most of that loss it attributes to theft.

Indeed, the light and power company estimates that it loses around US$75 million a year to theft, but that the figure could be nearly a third higher and that the bulk of that is for electricity extracted by an estimated 180,000 households that are not formally its customers. That figure is equivalent to nearly 30 per cent of its subscriber base.

This project with JSIF is similar to a proposal by JPS to the Office of Utilities Regulation as part of its tariff to deal with the matter in the seven pilot communities. JPS would wire homes, formally bring them on to the electricity grid, educate householders about energy efficiency, and use community-based sales/contact persons, while JSIF, with other agencies, would train people in electricity-related skills. It is the kind of social intervention with which JSIF has had success and which is relevant given JPS's analysis of a close correlation between the rise in poverty and the increase in the non-technical loss of electricity. Theft also increases with a rise in the price of power relative to people's income.

Part of the solution to the conundrum, of course, is for JPS to become more efficient and to reduce the price of a critical service that is decidedly expensive relative to others in Jamaica's neighbourhood. Interventions like the one being tried also make sense. Moreover, there is need for growth in the economy to create jobs and to lift people out of poverty.

But politicians mustn't be taken off the hook for broader reforms. It is no accident that such theft is concentrated in the zones of political exclusion Jamaicans call garrisons; the result of our hardened politics of the past and the sense of entitlement its purveyors helped to foster. They turned a blind eye to thievery, as a cheap form of social welfare. They must now invest in changing that culture.

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