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Jamaica Public Service, known affectionately by its acronym, JPS, is between a rock and a hard place. It tries to produce electricity and distribute it to a population that wants to use lots of it but too few want to pay. Yesterday, the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) began public consultations on a proposed rate hike for the Jamaica Public Service Company Limited (JPS). could see Jamaicans paying an average of 21 per cent increase in electricity bills. The OUR has 90 days from April 7 to respond to the request from the JPS. This will be the first comprehensive review of pricing for JPS since 2009.

JPS said in a media release it is never a good time to ask for an increase, particularly given current economic challenges. You don’t say! The exchange rate depreciation most have experienced in the past 15 months is about the size of the rate increase. President and Chief Executive Officer of the JPS, Kelly Tomblin says the company is using the periodic five-year review to have its pricing structure adjusted to reflect what it has invested to improve its systems, service and reliability. The increase will also enable further investments in building a better company to serve Jamaica’s needs.

JPS is seeking an average 21 percent increase in the price of electricity for residential customers. That’s you and me, buddy. We get stung badly. Why? Small businesses using under 7500 kilowatt-hour of electricity per month will face a 15 percent increase in rates, while it is proposed that the other small businesses receive a reduction of 8 percent in electricity bills. Not fair? Wait on. Large commercial and industrial companies will get a 1.5 percent cut in electricity rates.

JPS is hoping to introduce a lower tariff for low-income customers. “JPS is of the view that charging lower tariffs can increase collection rates and overall revenues from these communities. It also allows communities to establish the habit of paying utility bills, which they will continue as tariffs rise,” said the company. According to the JPS, the programme would also offer improved payment options and “transitional community-upliftment tariffs”–someone really needs to take that phrase out to the woodshed. I get the point, but would ask whether the chances of getting money and lessening theft are really going to be increased. Most people operate on the basis of incentives and risks and rewards. What is the risk of being caught, sentenced, or deprived of power if caught stealing it? If those have not changed, it’s a hard sell to think that somehow people are going to get moral and righteous and dig into pockets that supposedly have little money already and shell out for electricity that they were getting for free.

It’s ironic that we are just passing through a full moon eclipse and could see a red moon. Moonlight is often a good alternative to electricity.

The UK’s Guardian newspaper also published an article today about living off the grid, using renewable sources such as wind and solar power. Not a viable option for Jamaicans, but we all need to think about how to use alternatives.

Off-the-grid living, with solar and wind power

Off-the-grid living, with solar and wind power

Many in Jamaica should wonder why they do not have such options more available. Good question. How about lack of vision? You have 12 hours of sunlight here every day and most of it is used to power precious little. The cost of installation has come down but is still too high for many. Barbados dealt with decades ago, and made tax-breaks part of the change needed.

Some still use the sun and wind to dry their clothes–that’s all I knew most of my life. But, we ‘developed’. In my household, I have a hard time convincing people to not use a clothes drier. Crazy! We need some heads knocking—of politicians for being their usual craven selves, and for people who have not figured out that producing energy with fossil fuels is expensive as well as dirty, and also not using natural solutions that are free and wanting to pay for man-made ones is about a crackpot as it comes.

Basically, we have never been made to face the real costs of our choices. We pay high rates but do not understand how we can get them lower. JPS could be more efficient, and if plans go ahead, Jamaicans will get cheaper electricity in about two years time, if Energy World International’s 381 MW (natural gas) power plant comes up to snuff.

People and businesses who stole electricity were allowed to do so with relative impunity.JPS-ops That’s changed in recent times, but habits die hard, especially when they involve what Jamaicans so love, a bit of freeness. Our informal society thinks nothing of rigging up wires to ‘capture’ the current, and it may be that it involves tapping the lines of another paying customer, who cannot figure out how all efforts to reduce use lead to no change in monthly bills.

JPS have come into our lives a few times for non-payment and were ready to cut us off quick o’clock. That’s odd. You ought to try to keep regular paying customers connected, because they are regular payers; non-payment is an aberration (accidental, usually). Cutting them off quickly while allowing persons to steal without equally fast threat of disconnection is a perverse reaction. I told the contractor to have a think and leave the current alone. He had his orders and was getting ready to cut us off. “My good man,” I said. “What part of ‘leave it alone’ was unclear?” I asked. He muttered. I suggested he call head office. He told me to do it. I did. I told a lady that the bills had been paid regularly each month; I saw the money go out of the bank account. She said she could not see payments. I told her that someone else at JPS must be getting the credit, because the payments to them were not being returned. Silence. Pause. She said she’d look into it.

Bottom line was my wife had set up the payment details but had not changed the account number associated with the previous tenants at the house. (You’d think JPS would have a system that toggled payments to a residence, whatever, rather than to an account number that somehow has to then be ‘reconnected’ to its residential location. But, I’m a bit dense.) After several more calls by She-who-must-be-obeyed and some exchange of emails, the JPS contractor came back to try to disconnect again. “My good man…” More calls. More emails. At last. Cue music. Thanks to the lady who mans the gate to our complex, JPS were not going to get in and cut off anyone just because they had a work order. We have brains and can talk well. So, people listened long enough to allow a simple bureaucratic mistake to get sorted out, and JPS did not have to kneel and pray for payment.

I like to conserve energy, I’m an athlete. I turn off lights. People turn them back on. I cannot understand why the room needs to be lit if it’s empty. Ambiance is too expensive, especially if no one is there. I disconnect phone chargers from outlets when no devices are connected to them. They get replugged. Cheesh! The real problem with saving energy is that most people cannot visualise the costs. If every device had a counter that spun whenever current was passing through it, then you see those iPads, TV, phones, fridges and freezers left open, used better. I cannot blame children who have not had to deal with bills and often do not know how stuff works. But, many adults are as clueless.

JPS has its problem with aging infrastructure. Over the weekend, I read about a Kingston community, Mona, that had buried power cables but these had been laid without insulation and were corroding and causing regular power cuts. Expensive to replace. But, some bright button had a field day in the ‘out to lunch’ thinking that went into that little scheme.

I was driving along just a few days ago and noticing the way that electricity cables are strung across roads, like spun cotton candy in the wind, with most residences having a concrete pillar to ‘catch’ the cable. What a mess! Jamaica probably took its lead from the US, which seems to love this spaghetti arrangement of power supply. There, tree limbs, ice and snow regularly cause trouble and people lose power. In Jamaica, we have hurricanes, but little else seems to bother the wires. Putting them underground is more expensive and so less popular. Our house is supplied with underground cabling, but the development is relatively new.

People understandably wonder how they will bear the higher cost of electricity, when budgets are already straining. The options are simple, though not nice sounding. They curb use and/or make choices about on what else they can spend, or they don’t pay. Not easy, but that’s the choice set. Many people are facing a wage freeze. Freeze prices, too, some yell. Well, grocery prices are not being held constant, other public service costs have also gone up sharply. The plight of the economy is biting every butt hard.

What to do? I will keep walking around my home with my ‘placard’ stating ‘Turn it off!’, and will keep disconnecting when I can. I may have to get a bit rough and switch off a few fuses so that some heavy use appliances stop working. I heard that some people are getting ready to get candles and oil lamps. That’s fine for a lot of people who are more ascetic in their habits. “Oh, the children, wont take that!” kind of cries may come up. Well, you better get your kids wised up about what it takes to run all the stuff they use. Better still, set up a tread mill and get them running to help generate some electricity.

The solar water heater we have is good, and we have all the hot water we need thanks to Brother Sun. We’ve some light-sensitive bulbs in the yard. We have AC, and re-educating some of the household to live without that and use breezes and open windows was not easy, but I think we can check that box. Unlike the US, not all Jamaicans think they need to live in ice boxes. Offices are a problem, as are some stores, but the thermostats are going to have to shift, or some space needs to be made in the wage bills. You know what that means.

Jamaica is in an IMF programme that is about austerity. It does not make JPS raise its tariffs; that’s part of JPS’s own need to raise revenue and survive. But, ‘belt tightening’ is the order of the day in the broadest sense. Yes, it’s not the same when you’ve lived beyond your means and now you have to trim off fat (to mix metaphors) and need to pony up to keep a near-essential service in business. But, the mentality is about the same. You have to save where and when you can. You also need to tackle the waste when and where you can. Your thieving friend is your enemy, and if he happens to be a businessperson, he or she is not less taking food out of your mouth than people in so-called ‘distressed’ communities. It’s about needing to change behaviour. It’s not fun, but it’s also not impossible.