One would have to be of fairly advanced years to have a direct memory of the days when you could press the light switch and know for certain that the room would be immediately illuminated, or be in no doubt that a piece of equipment like the fridge was malfunctioning and not the victim of a power outage when it went off without warning. In those halcyon days no one had any intimate experience of what a black-out really involved. Since 1978 we have had plenty of time to become acquainted with the phenomenon, and a series of governments have demonstrated not only that they are quite incapable of solving the problem, but also sometimes, perhaps, that they lack a sense of what the priorities are.
Under former President Burnham, of course, there was neither the money nor arguably the expertise to address the problem, while President Hoyte put the issue into the hands of Mr Robert Corbin, whose adventures with a barge for the purposes of power generation were a spectacular failure. Then came President Cheddi Jagan, who in the early days of his period of office which happened to coincide with a particularly bleak period of electricity crisis, seemed to be absorbing himself with promulgating the New Global Human Order, rather than fixing GEC (Guyana Electricity Corporation), as it then was. Needless to say, the population’s perception of their head of state’s priorities, as it seemed to them, hardly corresponded.
In 1999 the next PPP/C government entered into a 50-50 equity partnership with a British-Irish consortium, creating the new company of GPL (Guyana Power and Light). It transpired the investors had underestimated the problems of commercial and technical losses, as well, it must be assumed, as the amount of investment necessary to make the company profitable. As it was, therefore, the arrangement came to an end in 2003.
The country’s electricity has always been expensive to generate because it depended on imported oil, and consequently tariff rates have been high in a nation where the average wage is low. It is this which accounts for the high theft rate for current, compounding an already high technical loss rate.
The government’s plan from the 1990s onwards was, among other things, to replace imported oil for power generation with renewable energy resources. There has been some generation from bagasse, but other schemes have not come to fruition for one reason or another, although there has been the installation of solar panels in some parts of the interior. Hydropower has been talked about for decades, but Burnham’s ambitious Upper Mazaruni project was stymied by the Venezuelans, while President Jagdeo’s Amaila Falls hydropower dream ran into the brick wall of the opposition in Parliament.
This is not to suggest that the latter was ever a fully wise decision in the first place, but public trust in the government’s judgement was not enhanced by the ‘Fip’ Motilall fiasco with the road to the falls, and the fact that the contractor had absolutely no experience whatever in the field. There were other problems too, not the least of which was that critics were not persuaded that when the project came on stream it would actually reduce the cost of electricity. This would have also depended on the rehabilitation of the distribution system and a great reduction in losses.
This does not appear to have given the Private Sector Commission (PSC) pause for thought, however, as it weighed in on the ongoing power outages on Friday. “It is nothing short of a tragedy that a country with such immense hydro electric potential resources should be made to tolerate this situation,” it said, going on to complain that the present government had put the Amaila project in “cold storage” and had offered “no acceptable alternative.”
As we reported yesterday, Minister of State Joseph Harmon had told this newspaper that the project was too expensive, and that the intellectual property lies with a Chinese company which would have to be paid possibly large sums, and which might even refuse to sell. As such, it would be effectively impossible to secure another investor, and other options were being reviewed instead. It seems that where these were concerned, the government’s inclination was to have an “energy mix” at the heart of which was its offshore natural gas, which it considered would be very much cheaper in the long run.
While the PSC appears to be wasting its breath on the matter of Amaila, which it is unlikely can be resuscitated at this stage even if it were desirable, what it has to say on the general electricity situation will undoubtedly have resonance with the populace. Without mincing its words it said that GPL didn’t have the management or the capacity to deliver reliable power to the public, and that the government had “consistently failed to address this reality.” The statement also pointed out the obvious, which has been adverted to many times before, namely, that most Guyanese do not have private generators to save the food they have stored in freezers and refrigerators.
No one needs to be told either the deleterious effect the power situation has on business, and how private generation in times of outages pushes up the cost of electricity – hardly an inducement to investors. But the private sector also put its finger on an issue which annoys all of GPL’s consumers, namely the fact that months of “unannounced and frequently prolonged power outages” are not preceded by any warning, and neither are they followed by any explanation. Even at the level of this newspaper, we reported that Stabroek News failed to reach GPL Chairman Robert Badal and Minister of Public Infrastructure David Patterson on the PSC statement, while CEO Renford Homer did not return calls, although initially giving an indication that he would do so.
Why does GPL, which cannot guarantee a 24/7 service to its customers, have the arrogance to assume that it does not owe them any kind of explanation for when it defaults, and sometimes cannot even be bothered to give them advance notice for scheduled blackouts. As a government entity it cannot believe that it does not have an obligation to communicate with the media when they ask questions, and communicate with customers when they want to know the reason for an erratic electricity supply. The electrical worthies have no right to closet themselves in their citadel in Main Street and refuse to provide the public with information; it is unconscionable.
Well given the current situation, the PSC is naturally concerned about whether GPL has it in mind to visit on us a gloomy Christmas. Would the authorities in that utility and/or Minister Patterson be so kind as to reassure us once more in that regard?
“In this day and age, at the exorbitant price that we are expected to pay for electricity,” said the PSC, “Guyana’s population should not be subjected to this punishment.” Indeed.