By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Chamber of Commerce executive yesterday called for Bahamas Power & Light’s (BPL) proposed consumer protection plan to be renamed, arguing: “The consumer is not protected.”
Debbie Deal, head of the Chamber’s Energy and Environment Division, said BPL’s draft plan listed numerous situations where it “will not honour claims for damages” to consumers’ properties, electronic goods and equipment.
The plan, which is currently undergoing public consultation, details how consumers can submit claims for damages to electrical equipment and spoilage “in the event of a negligent act by an authorised employee executing the installation or maintenance of any part of the network”.
However, it quickly adds: “The Bahamas Power & Light Company will not honour claims for damages” caused by “normal wear and tear failure” on its transmission and distribution system, or “third party damage or interference” with its network - including acts of vandalism and sabotage.
Other instances in which BPL will not pay damages claims include trees on a neighbouring property that interfere with power lines; so-called “switching surges”; and “voltage deviations due to transient faults”.
Ms Deal argued that BPL’s plan effectively required consumers to identify persons responsible for vandalism and sabotage, should such acts deprive specific areas and communities of power.
“The consumer is not protected,” she said. “What BEC or BPL is saying is they’re not responsible for any of this stuff, so you have to go and figure out who is responsible for it.”
The Chamber executive argued that, as a result, the ‘consumer protection plan’ title was a misnomer that should be renamed, given the limited recovery possibilities for Bahamian businesses and households who suffered damages during BPL outages, surges and ‘brownouts’.
“This has to be adjusted in some form as this is not a consumer protection plan,” Ms Deal told a Bahamas Society of Engineers (BSE) luncheon. “As long as this says it’s a consumer protection plan, this needs to be adjusted.”
Bahamians have frequently found it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain financial compensation from BPL’s predecessor, the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC), for electrical equipment damaged by inconsistent power supply.
DeCosta Bethel, the BSE’s president, reiterated these concerns yesterday, saying: “A lot of the public have frustrations going to BPL that they’re not going to get any compensation... That’s been an ongoing issue for years.”
He was speaking following a presentation given by Shevonn Cambridge, the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority’s (URCA) head of energy regulation, on BPL’s proposed consumer protection plan and ongoing public consultation.
Mr Cambridge responded to Mr Bethel’s concerns by disclosing that URCA, as BPL’s regulator, received few formal complaints from Bahamians regarding the energy monopoly’s service quality.
“Believe it or not, our complaints department at URCA does not field that many complaints,” he added. “Bahamians complain among each other, but when it comes down to filling out forms and filing complaints.....”
Mr Cambridge, though, acknowledged that the initial Town Meetings on BPL’s consumer protection plan had identified significant public concerns.
“Some of the feedback coming so far is a longing for transparency in the process and more communication,” he confirmed. “One of the things we see developing out of the recommendations is a more clearly defined reporting process for damages claims.
“Rather than just rejecting the claim, [BPL] have to be more explanatory in their interaction with the customer...It’s just more engagement to explain things; communicating with people.”
Mr Cambridge said BPL, for example, could not be held liable for power outages that were caused by “third parties”, such as contractors or other utility companies.
He added that Town Meeting attendees had also criticised BPL’s security deposit calculations as being “willy nilly and drawn out of hand, based on the previous consumer’s consumption”.
“They’ve taken steps to make it more reasonable and logical, and risk-based,” the URCA executive said. BPL’s proposal is that deposits will be calculated “based on twice the expected average monthly charge (including fuel) incurred by any of its 108,000 customers.
The calculation will also incorporate what the utility is describing as a ‘risk factor’, with consumers assessed as having a poor payment history given a 1.5 score. In contrast, BPL consumers where there are no issues or concerns will receive a ‘risk factor’ of 1.
Persons with a record of meter tampering will receive the highest ‘risk factor’ of 2, as will second homeowners and other “transient account holders” - likely renters and work permit holders. Properties where there are difficulties accessing meters will receive a 1.5 score.
“What we’re finding out with the metering is that I’m surprised at the number of people who go out daily to read meters and get their consumption,” Mr Cambridge said. “They’re allegedly finding inconsistencies between what they read and what is ending up on their bills.”
Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming, of The Engineering Group, said this matched her experiences. “I read my meter once a month,” she said, “and in the past the bill more or less lined up with my reading. Now it’s not happening, and I don’t know why.
“Months go by without receiving a bill, and the bill is not clear what the last reading was and what they billed me. My meter readings are different from their meter readings.”
Mrs Manoo-Rahming said she had “no way of knowing whether my meter has been read or the bill estimated”, although Mr Cambridge and BPL executives said this should be indicated on the bill.
Another potential problem identified was discrepancies between BPL’s online and postal billings.