Monday’s announcement that the Electricity Regulatory Authority had cancelled its February award to an independent power producer for 36 megawatts of energy, citing lagging consumer demand, did more to confuse and bewilder the public than anything else.
One inevitable conclusion is that the generation and distribution of power, while in largely professional hands, is monitored by few who have more than a passing acquaintance with the considerable complexities of the electricity industry.
The result is inadequate oversight, control that, at best, is light-handed, misapprehensions and lack of understanding that – despite the most hopeful efforts – easily misleads and misinforms ministers, ministries and the general public.
For example, contradictions abound in explanations of Monday’s cancellation. We are told that consumer demand has declined, yet also that looming developments are set to boost demand.
We learn that the analysts who annually create that “certificate of need” for the Caribbean Utilities Company have been forced to amend their projections. Even CUC President and CEO Richard Hew says the need for generating capacity remains and that the company will explore all its options to meet those needs.
The ERA wants to re-tender the project, although Chairman Sherri Bodden-Cowan and Managing Director Louis Boucher did not say if it would be for the same 36 megawatts. Yet CUC annual reports have complained for at least two years of declining sales and revenues, claiming that consumers are conserving and cooler weather mitigating often-pressing needs.
The questions rise like steam from a hot, damp surface: Who is reading documents, making decisions, developing policies, passing judgments?
Mr. Hew appears to be going along with the ERA’s reasoning, mandated by lawyer and former UDP leader Ms Bodden-Cowan.
We recall the 2008 negotiations for CUC’s new licence. At great expense, the utility employed experts in all phases of operations, from accounting, financial controls, schemes of control and rates of return to management, generation, distribution, fuel imports and consumption.
Facing them was a government panel, some of whom understood what they were doing; others with precious little experience of a highly technical enterprise. They were expected to hammer out a new set of contracts and laws binding the longtime monopoly operator.
The arrangements raised questions about their effectiveness, preserving CUC’s transmission and distribution monopoly, ensuring no company could commercially produce electric power without CUC’s explicit approval and, among other things, making renewable energy a near-impossible proposition by forbidding CUC to earn a profit from it.
After the 2009 elections, Juliana O’Connor-Connolly was minister for works, under whose remit electricity matters fell. While she may be a superb representative for the Sister Islands, doubt lingers regarding her grasp of the issues involved in utility operations. She named Cline Glidden as councillor to the ERA.
More recently, political candidate Joey Ebanks, a longtime utility employee, was terminated as managing director of the ERA and promptly alleged corruption, malpractice, attempted bribery and a range of misbehaviours.
While Monday’s decision did not mention Mr. Ebanks, it did refer to “unavoidable and unforeseen delays”, which may well involve the ERA’s promised independent investigation of Mr. Ebanks allegations and evidence, which involve the ERA, the governor, Dart Realty and others.
The time has come – in fact, has long since passed – when government needs professionals, critics, even sceptics, as overseers for the electricity industry. The luxury of leaving well-meaning generalists to face experienced executives in one of the world’s more profitable and crucial industries ranks as little more than a public disservice.