This burning issue of electricity theft

This burning issue of electricity theft

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

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We're not surprised that a number of Jamaicans staged a protest outside the Jamaica Public Service (JPS) head office in New Kingston last Saturday against the company's admission that its law-abiding customers have been paying a part of the cost of electricity theft by some unscrupulous citizens.

What surprised us, though, is the small number of people who participated in the peaceful protest.

Maybe it suggests that, while Jamaicans are correctly angered by the utility company's action, they have come to accept that there is some form of justification for electricity theft. Or maybe most people just couldn't be bothered.

Despite the small number of protesters, the JPS responded — though we found the comments of its senior vice-president for customer service, Mr Ramsay McDonald, a bit simplistic.

“Together,” he said, “we can conquer this, but we have to work together as a team. We need the support of Government to give us the various tools in order to attack this scourge on our society. We can't do it alone; we're not the police force and, first and foremost, we all know that it is a crime.”

The it to which Mr McDonald referred is electricity theft.

He then went on to advocate the JPS's latest push for the banning of incandescent bulbs for LED bulbs, stating that if that is done it will reduce electricity theft. We suspect that what Mr McDonald meant to say was that if everyone was indeed using LED bulbs the country's energy usage would be less and, as such, the cost of electricity theft to JPS would be reduced significantly.

Mr McDonald should know very well that electricity theft is not only a crime, it's a cultural problem. And, as the JPS often admits, as soon as its teams take down illegal connections in many communities they go right back up when the JPS teams, which are often accompanied by police, leave.

The company has often publicised the fact that it spends millions of dollars trying to stem electricity theft. In addition to regularising communities, people have been arrested and, as we stated before, illegal connections are disconnected. Just last August, JPS reported that 102 people had been arrested. At the time, the company said it had recovered 16.8 million kilowatt hours, which is enough to power just over 100 homes using an average of 165 kWh per month.

The company also reported that over the January to August period a total of 168,932 “throw-ups”, as the illegal connections are called, were removed from the network. Additionally, JPS rolled out a multifaceted anti-theft plan that included the utilisation of increased technology to apprehend those who steal electricity, as well as government assistance for those who steal electricity because they cannot afford to pay.

Based on the company's revelation that its loss to theft amounts to 18 per cent, which equates to approximately US$240 million, it appears that both those programmes are not not reaping the desired results.

Solving this problem will not be easy, for, as we have pointed out before, electricity theft is a social issue. Greater use of technology may have some impact, but what is really needed here is a cultural shift, which can be achieved, over time we admit, with the influence of the country's leaders, especially those in politics.

At the same time, JPS must accept that tacking on its losses to the bills of paying customers is a practice that should be brought to an end.

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