By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamas Power & Light’s (BPL) chief executive yesterday conceded the utility has “a long way to go” to minimise fuel theft and wastage, as he pledged to protect consumers “at all costs”.
Whitney Heastie told Tribune Business it was “extremely critical” for BPL to ensure all fuel purchased was used for electricity generation otherwise Bahamian businesses and households would feel an extra cost in the fuel charge component of their monthly bills.
While only one suspected fuel theft had been reported since he became BPL’s chief executive earlier this year, Mr Heastie said it was “not an accurate statement” to suggest the state-owned electricity monopoly had “tightened up” its controls to the extent necessary.
“With fuel a pass through, obviously good management of that fuel customers are paying for is extremely critical,” the BPL chief told Tribune Business. “Any time we have theft, wastage or leaks it impacts customers.
“We have to, at all costs, protect that fuel charge to ensure fuel brought in is only used to generate power. We have to work aggressively to make sure these types of losses and theft are not occurring.”
Mr Heastie described the sole fuel theft investigation launched since he took charge at BPL as “still pending”. He added that The Bahamas’ archipelagic nature, with BPL having to ship fuel to generating plants on 17 islands, added to the difficulty and complexity involved in managing fuel inventories such that losses were reduced to a bare minimum.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve tightened up,” he said. “We have a long ways to go to ensure we are trending properly with fuel. We have the very difficult task of moving fuel to these islands, and have to ensure there are checks and balances to make sure the fuel is only used for power generation.
“We have some work to do there. To say we have tightened up is not an accurate statement. Because of the number of islands involved; 17 islands, we have to work out where we want to be in terms of fuel.”
Mr Heastie was speaking after consultations over BPL’s draft consumer protection plan raised fuel theft and wastage as a major concern. Pericles Maillis, the well-known attorney and environmental activist, detailed numerous incidents that had affected his property in the Adelaide Village/Albany area - including one theft that was only exposed by the thief becoming distracted when having sex in his truck.
Revealing that he had the pictures to prove it, Mr Maillis told the Town Meeting: “The people had actually dug under the road, put in a valve, run a pipe out to the edge of the bush, then run another pipe out to the back. The truck would go out to the back (and) fill up when it wanted.
“According to the New Providence Development Company security guard, it only came to light by accident because the same thief who was stealing the diesel was having sex with a girl in the truck while the truck was being loaded, and it started pouring all over the ground. That is how it came to light.
“That is diesel going and going all that time, and we don’t know how long it was going, and we the public are paying for the fuel surcharge. So that one got sealed off with concrete.”
Mr Maillis said such theft was increasing the cost, and amount, of fuel BPL has to purchase to generate electricity at its Clifton Pier and Blue Hills plants. These costs, he argued, were likely being passed on to Bahamian consumers through higher electricity bills.
“While you have been putting up the fuel surcharge, there has been tremendous wastage and stealing of BEC (Bahamas Electricity Corporation) fuel,” Mr Maillis blasted at the Town Meeting. He described how he, his family and the Bahamian people “are in a state of terror” over the rising costs of BPL’s service, adding: “I don’t believe that our prosperity is going to be sustainable.
“Electricity cost has wrecked the hotel, the chicken farm [Gladstone Farms]. I’ve watched it ruin small restaurants. As a lawyer I hear and see it all, including very close to me. I would hope that, at the end of the day, the main focus of BPL and URCA and government would be to work, strive to get the cost of electricity and these prices down. The real terror is the fuel surcharge.”
Mr Heastie, meanwhile, yesterday said he and BPL “take no exception” to improvements mandated by regulators in its consumer protection plan. He added that the company shared the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority’s (URCA) goal for it to become a “best in class” energy provider.
URCA, as reported by Tribune Business, had ordered BPL to improve a consumer protection plan it deemed deficient by including “best practice” reliability standards and improved consumer dispute processes.
In a decision BPL must comply with or face a fine up to ten percent of “relevant turnover”, URCA identified nine areas where its consumer protection plan remained deficient despite revisions that were submitted to the regulator in January 2018.
Mr Heastie told Tribune Business there “are no surprises here” with what URCA is requiring, although he said BPL’s multiple issues raised questions about “how quickly” it could achieve the regulator’s targeted standards for service quality and reliability.
“I think what URCA is trying to achieve is international standard,” he said. “We are certainly in agreement that we need to become up to international standard. We have no issue with any of that.
“What they’re trying to accomplish is move us forward to best utility practices. We would certainly want to to comply to bring us into line with best utility standards. We take no exceptions to anything there.
“All URCA is trying to do is move the utility forward to what is best practice, and we definitely want to be there to change the customer experience.”
URCA found that BPL’s revised consumer protection plan did not include standards or benchmarks to measure its quality and reliability of service, even though this had been requested by the regulator.
URCA also found BPL guilty of “not providing a detailed process” for how consumer complaints will be resolved, describing its consumer protection plan as seemingly “arbitrary” and “confusing” on this issue. There was also no timeframe provided for addressing billing disputes.
And, while branding BPL’s revisions to its “overall standards” as “acceptable for the moment”, URCA then warned: “URCA considers that BPL needs to work on improving the proposed target for responding to emergencies (24 hours) and for responding to voltage complaints (visit within two days).
“URCA finds these targets compare poorly with other Caribbean utilities’ response times. For example, in Jamaica the target for responding to emergencies is 12 hours, while visits to households with voltage complaints are carried out within 24 hours after the complaint is lodged.”
URCA is also encouraging BPL to shorten the timeframe for reconnection, following a “wrongful disconnection”, to “no more than six hours” rather than the eight hours included in its consumer protection plan on the grounds this would match other Caribbean nations.
Mr Heastie said the two-hour difference was something BPL ought to be able to bridge once it obtained a “better understanding” of URCA’s concerns.
“Given all the things we’re being asked to do, how quickly can we transform the company to get there,” he asked. “The first thing for us is trying to provide a reliable service, and once we get there we look at things beyond reliability; maybe pockets of customers not getting the service they desire.
“URCA’s job is really to move the utility forward, not only in terms of reliability and the frequency and duration of outages. but how to deal with customer complaints and doing so in a timely fashion. I think it’s all fair.”