By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Regulators have warned Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) to be “fair, transparent and non-discriminatory” over any probe into whether its customers are using “fake energy saving devices”.
Stephen Bereaux, the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority’s (URCA) chief executive, yesterday told Tribune Business it will be “monitoring” BPL’s investigation into whether it has sustained financial losses as a result of its New Providence and Family Island customers installing the same equipment at the centre of the ongoing controversy in Grand Bahama.
The URCA chief said it was vital that BPL properly “verify any conclusions” from its investigation, and that “people are treated fairly”, suggesting this “may not be the case” in Grand Bahama.
Making the case for URCA to have regulatory oversight of all utilities in Grand Bahama, and especially the port area, Mr Bereaux said the cutting-off of customers’ power by Grand Bahama Power Company - and uncertainty over when it would be switched back on - was “a serious situation that should be overseen by an independent regulator”.
URCA currently has no supervisory responsibility for Freeport-based utilities, and has been unable to progress its long-standing bid to take over their regulation due to the July 7, 2016, legal action filed by GB Power to block this.
Mr Bereaux yesterday said URCA was trying “to progress” the action through the Bahamian court system, but had the added difficulty that it did not initiate the case. He described it as “languishing”, with GB Power seemingly not motivated to ensure it was dealt with quickly.
The URCA chief executive spoke out after BPL yesterday urged its 100,000-plus customers to report to it any concerns they may have over “energy saving devices” installed in their homes or businesses.
The state-owned utility monopoly said “it will not prosecute” if customers “unknowingly participated in tampering with or diverting the energy supply” as a result of these installations. But BPL warned: “The customer must come in and report their suspicions before it is discovered by BPL. Should BPL discover the tampering or diversion, and the customer has not reported it, BPL will prosecute.”
Tribune Business exclusively revealed on Friday that BPL was investigating whether it, and its customers, had fallen victim to the same “fake energy saving devices” that Grand Bahama Power claims to have uncovered.
To produce the promised energy savings, GB Power is alleging that installers resorted to either bypassing or tampering with electricity meters to under-record actual consumption. It produced photographs of these bypasses to back its claims, and alleged that it resulted in customers not paying for all the electricity used - potentially costing the utility millions of dollars.
Acknowledging BPL’s probe, Mr Bereaux said that if it also uncovered what is tantamount to electricity theft then URCA “would want to ensure that the process taken in terms of investigating and addressing any theft is fair, transparent and non-discriminatory.
“What we have to be careful about is that proper action is taken at every step of the process so any conclusions are verified, and people are treated fairly,” the URCA chief told Tribune Business.
“We would be monitoring what happens, and have a communication going to BPL to ensure they’re mindful of the need to be fair, the investigation done has to be thorough, and any action taken has proper oversight.”
Mr Bereaux, though, confirmed that events in Grand Bahama were “outside our sphere of influence” due to the ongoing court case launched by GB Power challenging URCA’s ability to licence and regulate it on the grounds that this “conflicts” with Freeport’s founding treaty - the Hawksbill Creek Agreement.
The URCA chief, though, made thinly-veiled criticisms of the way in which GB Power had handled the situation by cutting off customers’ electricity supply without establishing whether they were knowingly aware of what was happening and what these “energy saving devices” were doing.
GB Power is regulated by the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA), Freeport’s quasi-governmental authority, which last week said it had begun an investigation of its own - although there have been few visible signs of this occurring.
And Mr Bereaux also implied the GBPA was conflicted, given that it had licensed the person(s) responsible for selling and installing the devices at the heart of the controversy.
“There are questions over whether customers knew what was going on, and these are areas where we have concerns that what was done was transparent and fair,” he told Tribune Business of Freeport.
“It was a very unfortunate situation because it doesn’t appear people knew what was happening, but we would certainly not want that uncertainty to happen in New Providence; how power was switched off, and when and how quickly it will be restored.
“These are all serious situations that should be overseen by an independent body, which is the reason we continue to argue for expanded regulation. We have people who understand what’s going on, and have a full slate of regulatory personnel. I’m not sure that’s the case in Grand Bahama currently.”
GB Power, in its amended statement of claim, filed on July 7, 2016, sought a Supreme Court injunction to prevent URCA “from regulating, or seeking to exercise licensing and regulatory authority”, over it. It also wants the Supreme Court to declare that GB Power can carry on its business without requiring a public electricity supplier licence from URCA.
GB Power’s action is founded on the basis that, as a Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) licensee, it is licensed and regulated by the latter via the Hawksbill Creek Agreement - and not by URCA and the Electricity Act 2015.
It is arguing that the Electricity Act’s sections 44-46, which give URCA the legal right to licence and oversee energy providers, “are inconsistent, and conflict with, the rights and privileges vested in [GB Power] and the Port Authority” by the Hawksbill Creek Agreement.
GB Power’s statement of claim argues that itself and the GBPA “have been vested with the sole authority to operate utilities”, including electricity generation and transmission and distribution, within the Port area until the Hawksbill Creek’s expiration in 2054.
Mr Bereaux yesterday said URCA was “pushing” for the case to be “progressed as quickly as possible” through the court system, but said GB Power - whose responsibility this was as filer - had left it “languishing”.