By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Some 90 percent of Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) customers facing disconnection last night remained in danger of having their electricity cut-off as the utility seeks to recover a $46m debt.
Data provided to Tribune Business yesterday by the state-owned energy monopoly showed that just 1,311 residential and commercial customers, out of a total 12,446 that were threatened with disconnection, have either settled their arrears or worked out a mutually-acceptable payment plan with it.
This means some 11,135 customers are now susceptible to having their electricity cut-off with BPL's chairman, Dr Donovan Moxey, renewing his plea for those facing COVID-19 related financial hardship to be "proactive" and meet with the utility so that their service can be maintained.
BPL also confirmed to this newspaper that a net 715 customers have lost their energy supply since disconnections resumed earlier this month following the three-month pandemic lockdown, with some 1,361 disconnected to-date and a further 646 reconnected.
The statistics were obtained after the deadline for the final two of three customer categories faced with disconnection to either pay-off their arrears or make payment arrangements expired on Tuesday, July 28.
Prior to this, some 11,399 customers who were $500 or more in arrears, and 90 days past due, prior to April 1 and the full onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic were faced with disconnection. This has now expanded to 1,047 delinquent BPL customers who were $500 or more in arrears since April 1 (488), plus those who were on the Government’s three-month COVID-19 bill deferral (599).
BPL yesterday said all three customer groups owe it a collective $46m, with $36.914m due from those based on New Providence and $9.084m from Family Island consumers. Some 1,048 New Providence customers, and 263 in the Family Islands, were reported to have agreed payment plans that were accepted by BPL as of yesterday.
The situation represents a crisis for both cash-strapped BPL, which needs to collect every cent it can to keep the lights on, and those customers threatened with disconnection given that many will likely have lost jobs, income and/or business due to COVID-19. Business customers represent 2,179, some 17.5 percent or one in six, of those threatened with disconnection.
The remainder, numbering almost 10,000, are Bahamian households and individuals. Reiterating his previous call for those in difficulty to reach out to BPL rather than "ignore the bill", Dr Moxey said disconnections remained a last resort and an option BPL does not want to pursue.
Yet he added that BPL needed to cover its staff, fuel and other expenses if it was to keep supplying electricity nationwide, and said "it makes no sense to put a customer deeper into debt" by allowing them to consistently make zero payments on their monthly light bill.
Arguing that BPL did not want to cut any customer's energy supply off, Dr Moxey nevertheless said "there has to be a balance" between consumer needs during a time of extreme hardship and the utility's ability to sustain itself.
Indicating his and BPL's disappointment that so few have stepped forward to make payment plans to-date, he told Tribune Business: "Obviously we're certainly open to working with our customers to make payment arrangements.
"Given the numbers eligible for disconnection, which I believe is around 12,400 customers, the less than 2,000 making payment arrangements is less than 20 percent of the total." In fact, BPL's data shows just 10.5 percent of those threatened with cut-off had worked out a payment plan with BPL.
"For us the main message is that we want to work with customers. We hope they come in and take advantage of these payment plans," Dr Moxey added. "We recognise it's tough times for customers, and are willing to work with them. We'd like the customer to be proactive but, at the end of the day, as BPL we have to pay our own bills."
Arguing that it was unsustainable to allow businesses and households to incur debt they would never be able to repay, he said: "If a customer is in arrears, to make sure they don't rack up a bill we have to cut-off the service and flow of electricity...
"It makes no sense to put customers deeper in debt. We want to understand the customer's situation and work with them. It makes no sense for anybody to keep on increasing the bill without having some payment arrangement on it.
"What we want to do is limit the impact on them financially. We don't like to cut-off anybody, but there has to be a balance there. BPL cannot continue to do that [keep delinquent payers' lights on] and make it sustainable," Dr Moxey continued.
"We're a national utility charged with providing an essential service, and to do that we have to collect revenues on bills that we send out for providing the service. Rather than ignore the bill come into us and work out a payment plan."
Given the numbers still threatened with disconnection amid COVID-19's hardship, and the potential ramifications for BPL's financial position, the Government may well be forced to step in and help bolster the utility - something that Desmond Bannister, minister of works, last week indicated it may have to do.
The disconnection of more than 11,000 households and businesses would likely have far-reaching social (and political) consequences at a time when The Bahamas is suffering the brunt of COVID-19's health and economic fall-out, meaning it will not be an outcome desired by any government.
However, Dr Moxey said no Bahamas-based entity could afford to ignore a $46m debt owed to it. "That's quite a significant amount of money for any company in this country no matter who you are," he told Tribune Business.
"We would have to find ways to pay our bills, and the only supporter of BPL is the Government, but the Government has other responsibilities as well. We don't want to cut anybody off, but there comes a point where we have to recognise a bill is not being addressed consistently and being allowed to go up. It's one of those challenges we seek to avoid where we can."
Some, though, would likely argue that BPL should shoulder the COVID-19 fall-out given the high-priced, poor reliability it has provided in recent months and years with the daily island-wide load shedding and blackouts of last summer still fresh in the memory of many consumers.
While there has been improvement for summer 2020 to-date, Abaco residents and businesses have experienced the same problems consistently over recent weeks due to generation challenges on the island.