It would be disingenuous, to say the least, not to regard the Barbados Light and Power Company Limited as not being one of the most reliable electricity utilities anywhere in the Caribbean and beyond.
Anyone who is familiar with the travails of power supply in such neighbours as Antigua and Guyana, among other member utilities of CARILEC, the regional association of electric services and other industry players, knows that Barbados has steadily remained an exemplar provider over 108 years of unbroken service to its citizens.
But to whom much is given, much is expected. We pay some of the highest prices in the world for electricity. At 52 cents (26 US cents) per kilowatt-hour, we are in the company of Japan, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark, Germany – all among the richest nations on the planet. On this side of the Atlantic, only Jamaica at 29 US cents per kilowatt-hour and Bermuda, at the record-high 40 cents per kilowatt-hour, are more expensive.
This high price is partly testimony to the fact that our national grid is powered by the least clean sources. We have neither hydroelectric, biomass, biogas, wind nor wave generation and barely enough solar power to make a dent in our appetite for current.
But we must also question the extent to which the sole electricity utility’s acquisition by a multinational corporation is not to be considered as a factor in the pricing and reliability of electricity, at a time when fuel oil prices are relatively low, the type of turbine fuel among the cheapest and the speed at which our dynamos spin remains unusually low in this hemisphere – 50 cycles, a legacy of our British colonial past.
It is in the public interest, necessity and convenience that we ask Emera, Light and Power’s Canadian parent, to take this nation fully into its confidence about today’s short-term issues and tomorrow’s long-term concerns.
Up to 8:35 tonight, electricity was still being restored to all parts of the island, more than 13 hours later. At 7:30 p.m., an hour-and-a-half past the promised 6 p.m. ‘all-on’ deadline, only 75 per cent of the grid was online.
We were told that dodgy fuel was to blame for a previous outage. Today, we gather that a substation failure at the Spring Garden main generation plant triggered the national power cut. Over the next several hours, only about 40 per cent of the nation enjoyed minimal disruption. Then came “load sharing” as some areas briefly regained, and then lost, power. Even in this understandably careful exercise of hooking up parts of the country to the grid, large sections remained completely without power for half-a-day as outage turned to outrage.
Said the electricity company: “Due to ongoing challenges with our heavy fuel oil generators, full restoration may not occur until 6 pm.”
This is not what we expect from a profitable subsidiary of a corporation trading publicly on the Toronto Stock Exchange with revenues of more than $6.5 billion in 2018 and assets of $32 billion.
Make no mistake: Emera’s first priority is to deliver profits, higher dividends and rising stock prices to its shareholders. It enjoys a monopoly in this country as it does in Dominica, St Lucia and Grand Bahama. But its regulator, the Fair Trading Commission, will need more than terse but vague press releases as it oversees the company’s performance, quality of service and demands for higher rates of return. And so do we, the captive residential, commercial and institutional customers of the sole power company on this island.
Barbadians’ collective memory may not be lengthy, and there is no Emera executive in the Halifax headquarters who would be aware but we are not unmindful of the literally dark nights and days of extensive and frequent nation-wide power outages in 1973 at the heart of the global oil supply crisis.
If we are on the cusp of a homegrown crisis, Light and Power needs to tell us. All through the post-independence era, our growing nation’s rising electricity demand had financed the commission of newer, more efficient, low-speed turbines, the introduction of cheaper, low-grade fuel, and the expansion and upgrade of the distribution system. It has also made the company ripe for acquisition by a foreign entity.
But with the 2030 deadline to become a 100 per cent clean energy nation, today’s outage crisis raises more questions than answers about the role our sole power provider will play in putting our national vision in its portfolio along with its profit motive.
These power cuts will also demand that greater light is shed on the public utility’s current problems, medium-term solutions and long-range planning. Not PR to burnish a much-vaunted corporate image but transparency, openness and candour will be necessary for a nation that depends on the quality of its public utilities and modern conveniences to earn its way in a services-dominant economy. Not now, as we dig ourselves out of decade-long economic depths, can we accept unreliable power supply.
We seek nothing less than the truth from one of the most powerful agents in our national life.