By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Progressive Liberal Party’s (PLP) pledge to offer ‘free electricity’ to the poorest Bahamians was yesterday slammed by one of its political opponents as “the stupidest idea I ever heard”.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, the FNM’s Freetown candidate, urged the Government “to stop conducting social policy through BEC” and its new operating subsidiary, Bahamas Power & Light (BPL).
Mr D’Aguilar, a former BEC Board member, said BPL was simply not in a solid-enough financial position to be able to offer free electricity to any customers, given its consistent $30 million annual losses.
“It’s the stupidest idea anyone ever head of,” he told Tribune Business of the promise contained in the PLP’s 2017 ‘action plan’.
“BEC is not in a financial position to offer anything to anyone for free. The company has been financially destroyed by the PLP. The company is bankrupt because of them.”
Mr D’Aguilar blamed Bradley Roberts, the PLP chairman, and the late Al Jarrett for the financial predicament now faced by BPL and its management/operating partner, PowerSecure.
The duo were minister for works, with responsibility for BEC, and the utility’s chairman, respectively, when the 2003 decision cut to BEC’s ‘base rate’, the portion of the tariff that generates its profits and cash flow, was taken.
Although this was masked for several years by one-off inflows, such as proceeds from the sale of BEC’s Cable Bahamas shares, the tariff cut has been blamed for consistent losses that, since 2007, have exceeded $20 million on an annual basis apart from one year under the former FNM administration.
“Free electricity is useless to anybody if they don’t have power,” Mr D’Aguilar blasted. “We have widespread power outages now because the infrastructure is so deteriorated.
“The Government should stop conducting social policy through BEC. It’s another of these election promises that they’re going to fail to deliver on, like Mortgage Relief and 10,000 jobs in one year. It’s another one of these vote catching gimmicks in their minds.”
The PLP’s 2017 ‘action plan’ promises that the Government will “cover the cost of electricity” for Bahamians who keep their monthly usage below “specified limits”.
Mr Roberts later suggested that the proposal was targeted at persons whose bills were $50 per month or less, and would help between 15-20 per cent of the lowest income households.
The PLP ‘action plan’ added that the proposal would promote energy conservation and discipline, and aid environmental preservation.
But, at face value, it appears again to promise a ‘wealth transfer’ from Bahamian taxpayers to a particular segment of society. The pledge is likely designed to shore up the PLP’s ‘grassroots’ supporter base, while also trying to catch their rivals as appearing to be ‘uncaring’.
BPL was forced to issue a statement saying it had not engaged in any discussions over the governing party’s plans, and it remains to be seen what the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA), as industry regulator, would make of the ‘free electricity’ idea should it be brought forward.
Adding to the uncertainty, Prime Minister Perry Christie later said the ‘free electricity’ proposal had been released prematurely, and more thought and detail needed to be given to it.
Mr D’Aguilar argued that the PLP’s plan would be better accomplished by ensuring low income Bahamian households were provided with pre-paid meters, allowing them to ‘top up’ their compensation as needed.
He said this would act as a safeguard against such persons incurring huge BPL bills they were unable to pay, resulting in homeowners being cut-off for extended periods of time with little hope of recovery.
“There are many other ways to drive energy conservation than give people free electricity,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business. “Incentivise people to become energy efficient with solar and energy efficient light bulbs. There are many ways to do it.”