Government myopia

There is a saying that change is the only constant in the world, but what about when nothing changes? Does it mean that the world is less constant? And if that is the case, then what does it say about the electricity situation in Guyana which has not changed much in the last 30 years?

For more than three decades now, power outages have been a way of life in this country. This major inconvenience began at a time when many citizens had become used to having electricity readily available at the flick of a switch. It was also a time when the urban population was growing and with it the demands on utilities, like power and water.

Over the years, successive governments pushed for investments, plugging the need for progress. Tangible growth was seen in industries in several parts of the country. While none of this was on the scale that is possible with the impending petroleum industry, entrepreneurs and companies started businesses, many that were already in operation expanded and there were even some foreign investments.

Unfortunately, for everyone, infrastructure, especially electricity, did not grow alongside these industries. Before long, anyone investing in any business, no matter how small, had to factor in back-up power generators, as did many households. In fact, the outages became so endemic that some large businesses opted for self-generation, removing themselves completely off the national grid.

The problems with the electricity company, which has more or less always controlled the sector, are myriad. They include systems losses, which encompass poor transmission and distribution and theft of electricity through meter tampering as well as a profusion of illegal lines all around the country. And while the Guyana Power and Light (GPL) today and in its various forms over the years has upgraded its transmission and distribution infrastructure somewhat, it has failed to stamp out the other problems, which are fed sometimes by poverty, but mostly by corruption.

Given Guyana’s tropical climate, alternative energy – not acquired through the use of fossil fuels – seemed a natural progression, but it has so far not been made. For some reason, there has never been a real connection with solar power, although one would imagine it to be an obvious consideration. Under the PPP/C administration, solar panels were stingily handed out in some hinterland communities, providing basic short-term electricity, but not enough to make a real difference.

Instead, the focus was on hydropower, which when done well is a good, reliable source of alternative energy. However, its chosen project at Amaila Falls in the Potaro, was swamped with problems and errors from day one and although a large sum of money was spent on its start-up, under the Low-Carbon Development Strategy, it never got off the ground.

Of course, part of the problem is the myopia that somehow seems to affect every government.  Back in December 2014, current Minister of State Joseph Harmon, then in opposition had opined that GPL should “find ways to reduce tariff [and] get off Guyanese backs.” In response, then prime minister Samuel Hinds, who held ministerial responsibility for the sector had said that anyone who felt GPL was a burden had the right to generate their own electricity. Clearly, in 2014 there was no need for Mr Hinds to make such a statement, since every Guyanese who could afford it was already generating his/her own electricity; quite possibly, he is doing the same today. Meanwhile, Mr Harmon and other members of his party would do well to remember the criticisms they made while in opposition.

For example, there seems to be no recognition that a small project done well could be the pilot of larger, more beneficial changes. A case in point is the greening of Guyana, a catchphrase coined by the current President that has already earned cliché status. The plan is to use Bartica as the model town and this is well underway with government having drawn down a grant of US$650,000 from the Government of Italy to support the project, which was launched in June last year. Obviously, given the size of this undertaking, it is going to take time to come to fruition.

In the meantime, it would seem that not much consideration, if any, is being given to greening other new projects. For example, according to the Department of Public Information, two “smart” health centres were recently completed in Region Five (Mahaica/Berbice) and are set to be commissioned by the end of this month. Located at Carlton Hall, Mahaicony and Mon Choisi, West Coast Berbice, the two centres reportedly cost $47 million. Photographs of two squat, small concrete buildings accompanied the press release which deemed the health centres “smart” because they will now “provide dynamic and engaging settings that cater to the individualised needs of patients and identify opportunities for staff and administrators to broaden treatment options, as well as the location where that treatment is provided.” In addition, according to the release, the buildings have “green economy concepts such as LED light bulbs…”

Yes, LED light bulbs, but no solar panels were visible on the roofs in the photos provided. Should alternative energy not have been a prime consideration in a new ‘smart’ building with ‘green economy’ concepts? It must be obvious that it would be impossible for the ‘dynamic and engaging’ treatment settings mentioned to occur when one considers the state of the electricity sector in Guyana today. But perhaps the health centres will be outfitted with generators.

Maybe things will be done differently with the new Diamond/Grove Magistrates’ Court, where construction is set to begin shortly. After all, according to the plan, it is expected to be the first court in Guyana to have an elevator.

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