By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) has been urged to accelerate the roll-out of pre-paid electricity meters, an outspoken businessman arguing that it would help low income Bahamians avoid the “cut-off trap”.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, who sat on the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) Board under the former Ingraham administration, said the reliance on post-paid meters was “onerous” for poor Bahamians.
He told Tribune Business that these allowed households to run-up huge energy bills they had no ability to pay, resulting in BEC (now BPL) cutting them off for non-payment.
And, given the relatively high cost of electricity, coupled with high unemployment and the struggling economy, Mr D’Aguilar said many low income Bahamians were unable to afford what was necessary for their supply to be restored.
This resulted in families being cut-off for months, even years, and the Superwash president said pre-paid meters would instead enable them to manage their energy consumption to the point where they would only use what they could afford.
Mr D’Aguilar said this would also help drive a reduction in BPL’s near-$120 million accounts receivables, and the need for the Government and energy monopoly to subsidise delinquent consumers to help them get back on the grid.
“It’s my firm belief that if you switch to pre-paid meters, the need to assist the poor will diminish because it will drive home energy conservation,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business. “It’s human nature.
“The present system is so onerous on poor people. It allows them to use power, they get cut off, can’t get back on, and their trapped. They can be cut off for two years.
“BEC traps them by letting them run up a big bill, and then they get cut off and can’t get back on. There are tens of thousands that are in that category.”
Mr D’Aguilar said he raised the issue of pre-paid metering at this week’s Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) breakfast meeting with Pam Hill, the newly-arrived BPL chief executive.
He told Tribune Business that she seemed receptive to the idea, saying: “They’re certainly rolling that process out and are going to do it.”
Pre-paid metering had been discussed under the former BEC structure, and the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) has been facilitating experiments with this technology in Spanish Wells and other Eleuthera communities to determine its viability for wide-scale use.
BEC’s last audited financial statements, for the year to end-September 2014, exposed just how heavily non-paying customers are weighing on its cash flow and profitability.
The private sector (households and businesses), at end-September 2014, collectively owed BEC a net $82.379 million in light bill arrears.
The gross figure was $178.703 million, but BEC had already provided for $96.324 million of this sum. A further $37.357 million was owed by the Government and its various ministries and departments, taking BEC’s total accounts receivables to almost $120 million.
Mr D’Aguilar said that when he served on BEC’s Board, the issue of whether to cut-off large delinquent customers proved a major distraction from the main focus, which was “how to deliver power cheaply and efficiently”.
“You’re focused on should I cut off this hospital, this school, this hotel,” he explained. “All the time you waste dealing with them is a major challenge. They never pay, but you couldn’t turn them off.
“Pre-paid meters would make such a huge difference. The business model would be so much better.”