Business

JPS's response to power outages

BY ROBERT F EVANS

Sunday, October 14, 2012    

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THRICE in the last two months or so, where this writer lives has been out of power for more than three hours - twice for about 12 hours. Power outages are almost daily affairs for many Jamaicans and the usual excuse about the "teams" being too busy tending to other faults to respond with alacrity no longer rings with any conviction.

Perhaps a part of the problem is that JPS appears to view "emergency" differently from their customers. A customer experiencing a power outage calling JPS is first presented with an option relating to bill balance or about payment to JPS. The second option is to report an emergency. When one enters that menu number, one is reminded that the line is for emergencies only and further input is required from the customer to proceed. The caller is then reminded about recording of the call for quality purposes. Then, and only then, can one speak to a representative about the emergency — often after a prolonged wait. It would appear that JPS sees payment as first priority whereas customers see power availability as their priority.

The lengthy outages have some predictability as there is a tendency to follow bad weather - particularly during the rainy seasons. This has been so for many decades and so, by now, the pattern should be understood and prepared for instead of telling the customer that the OUR required standard for response is that JPS visits within six hours (in a small island) and repair is not mandated within that trip. Often the problem is caused by a lightning storm which caused the pole breaker to trip and the solution is the few seconds it takes to reset this breaker (a process requiring skill and knowledge) after an inspection of the associated line. Remote control breakers are used for certain applications.

Now does this really make sense? The questions that resonate in the minds of the customers include: How many response teams and trucks does JPS have? How many should they have? What is being done to upgrade the system to minimise power outages? One suggestion (obviously offered in jest) is that it be made a criminal offence for JPS workers to have generators at home. This is reminiscent of the late "Mutty" Perkins suggestion that Water Commission workers be paid on the basis of water produced!

A better and perhaps more workable idea is the recognition that a very minuscule addition to the electricity bill could go a long way to correcting the problems of unreliability (with the associated losses of production). The issue here is that a cost increase in this economy is a "hot potato" but sometimes one must spend to achieve long-term savings. The explanation follows.

JPS supplies about four billion kilowatt hours annually of which about 1 billion is lost and therefore the remaining three billion kilowatt hours is what they sell to their customers. One could look at the JPS selling rates and "do the math" and it would become apparent that an increase in their tariff structure of one per cent would produce perhaps of the order of JA 1 billion.

This would be sufficient to add several trucks to their response fleet with crews to work 24/7 (providing over 100 jobs) and to increase the number of call centre personnel. A fraction of this money could also initiate programmes to increase the lightning resistance of the system and to minimise the lost kilowatt hours. (Who knows? Reducing the losses could result in a small reduction in rates and so the one per cent addition may help pay for itself!)

If consumers are prepared to pay a very small increase in the electricity rates, this could go a long way to improve efficiencies and maintain production and, therefore, make the electricity provider a palatable option until one can afford the ultimate solution -- self-generation (typically solar panels.)

Robert F Evans is a practising engineer.

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