By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Freeport-based advocacy group plans to meet with the Grand Bahama Power Company’s (GBPC) regulator next week over the “really terrible” way the utility has handled claims of electricity theft.
Pastor Eddie Victor, president of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens (CCC), told Tribune Business it had “requested a meeting” with the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) to address concerns over the continued disconnection of the Cooper family’s seven fast food franchise outlets which - up to press time last night - still had not been restored to the grid.
Ominously, Senator Kwasi Thompson, minister of state for Grand Bahama, last night warned that GB Power’s electricity theft allegations “may become a much larger situation” - indicating there are multiple homes and businesses that may face similar claims.
“The government is obviously very concerned for the businesses that have been impacted by the situation, their employees, customers, the Grand Bahama Power Company and the wider community,” he said in a statement.
“We are at a very early stage of what may become a much larger situation. However, the government has encouraged all parties, particularly those businesses impacted and the power company, to seek a fair resolution, and has encouraged the power company to continue the dialogue started today with the impacted businesses and the wider community.
“The government will do what it can to assist and is hopeful that a resolution is in sight.”
Questioning why GB Power had moved straight to disconnection and filing a police complaint, instead of first raising the matter with the operators of three three Burger King, three KFC, and one Pollo Tropical outlet, Pastor Victor said the Coalition will “intensify efforts” to prevent further business shut-offs given the negative impact for Freeport’s economy and employment.
He added, though, that the advocacy group - a long-time critic of GB Power and its “high rates” - was still investigating the energy-saving device at the centre of the dispute to determine whether its use was legal or not.
Pastor Victor said it was common knowledge that this equipment had been “installed all over Grand Bahama and Nassau” in both residences and businesses in a bid to reduce energy costs that, for some Bahamians, have become akin to “a second mortgage” that depresses corporate profits and disposable income.
“We have requested a meeting with the regulator and will be meeting with them next week to discuss this whole matter,” he told Tribune Business. “Our efforts have to intensify. These are prominent businesses, and they could do this to someone else.
“We don’t want to see this happen to any other business or residential customer. Why couldn’t they have communicated with the customer, and told them to come in and let’s work this out. We have high electricity costs and people are taking measures to save money, especially businesses, because businesses are paying absolutely ridiculous prices for electricity.
“It shouldn’t have happened. The way people are in this country, there should have been a proper dialogue to solve this problem. One of these businesses has been in existence for 50 years. You have a 50-year customer and shut down the power in the middle of their operations.”
Pastor Victor said his wife was in one of the Burger King outlets involved when GB Power disconnected it from the grid, but the Cooper family have “categorically and emphatically” denied the claims that their businesses were involved in electricity theft or any form of wrongdoing.
GB Power, though, would argue that it had little choice but to go straight to the disconnection option to preserve the integrity of its system, and that it needs to take all measures necessary to protect the financial and operational viability of its business model.
The utility, now 100 percent owned by Canadian-based Emera, has not commented beyond confirming the disconnections and its ongoing investigation - coupled with complaint made to the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) - as it waits for its probe to reach a conclusion.
Tribune Business understands that GB Power’s concerns relate to both the “energy saving” device that was employed and how it was wired/configured. Multiple sources, with extensive experience in the energy field, said such equipment had been promoted to Bahamian businesses and homeowners as helping to produce a significant reduction electricity bills once it was installed.
This, though, is not what it is designed to produce. Some contacts described the device involved as a capacitor bank, which is designed to enable motors and electrical equipment to run more smoothly and efficiently. However, it does not cut the amount of energy consumed.
Tribune Business sources suggested that, in order to produce the promised savings, some installers had wired the devices such that they bypassed a “leg” of the electricity meter box. This, they explained, meant that not all energy consumption by a home or business was recorded by the utility - resulting in underbillings and losses to it.
The use of such devices is understood to be widespread throughout The Bahamas, extending well beyond Freeport. One contact, speaking on condition of anonymity, said GB Power was preparing to “saturate” the island as part of its ongoing meter reading exercise, which is paving the way for the installation of new smart meters, to uncover similar situations.
While acknowledging GB Power’s right to protect its business and network infrastructure, they expressed concern that the utility was effectively acting as “judge, jury and executioner” in how it was tackling the matter in the absence of any response or pronouncement by its regulator, the GBPA.
They added that the information vacuum that has developed, in the absence of further explanation by GB Power, had resulted in many persons turning against the utility on social media.
Pastor Victor yesterday said many Bahamians used such energy-saving devices to “stabilise and clean-up” their power supply due to the “unstable delivery” they were faced with from the grid.
Expressing concern about the threat to 500 jobs as a result of the fast food franchise disconnections, he told Tribune Business that GB Power’s actions had created a climate “of intimidation and fear for residents and businesses that is disruptive to the continuity of Grand Bahama’s economy”.
“We have to deal with the manner in which prominent businessmen are being dealt with,” Pastor Victor blasted. “These are companies helping our economy, providing a vital service for many people.
“The Power Company is disrupting the economic operation of businesses in an economy that is already challenged. The atmosphere of high electricity rates on this island has caused people to be more proactive in taking conservation measures.”