Monday, Aug 19, 2019

Hot mess

In this March 2015 photo, Free National Movement Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis speaks to reporters outside the Bahamas Electricity Corporation’s headquarters on Tucker Road, calling the power crisis a “PLP mess”. FILE

The Minnis administration is nearly two and a half years into its term and Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) is failing in its mandate to keep the lights on.

In 2015, when the Christie administration was two and a half years into its term, Free National Movement (FNM) Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis declared: “The BEC fiasco exposes a crisis of leadership.”

At a press conference outside the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) headquarters, Minnis said: “We have gathered here today to express our collective outrage over the state of the Bahamas Electricity Corporation and the tremendous pain and suffering Bahamian citizens, Bahamian businesses, investors and their guests have had to endure due to repeated blackouts and uncertainty over the future of the corporation.

“Thousands of residents have had to endure the loss of revenue, damage to appliances, spoilage of food, oppressive heat, inconveniences and loss of productive hours. At the same time, many of our investors are potentially facing millions of dollars in lost revenue, and our country which is already reeling from business loss due to concerns over our crime rate, is now taking a reputational hit over inconsistency of power supply.”

Minnis added: “What is clear, is that in nearly three years, the PLP (Progressive Liberal Party) government has not managed to maintain, or to repair the generators at BEC, so as to boost capacity to meet existing electricity demands during peak hours.

“Worse still, the government does not have the foreseeable ability to generate sufficient electricity, to meet existing demand and to meet the incoming demand from the Baha Mar development at the same time. The overloaded demands upon BEC’s antiquated and inefficient electrical distribution system are also very real and pressing concerns.”

Minnis declared: “BEC is a mess, a PLP mess. And Bahamian residents and businesses continue to suffer as a result. We deserve better.”

Failing to account

As prime minister, Minnis now remains curiously silent and the minister responsible for BPL has been arrogantly dismissive — and is now flat out refusing to speak on the matter.

Meanwhile, BPL officials are hiding behind nondisclosure agreements its chairman revealed have been entered into with Shell North America and Finnish technology group Wartsila — the companies selected to solve our energy crisis.

In November, BPL signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Shell to begin the process to deliver cheaper energy costs and significantly reduce the number of blackouts.

The project will include a new gas-fired 220-plus MW (megawatt) power plant, officials said. The aim is to have the plant completed “around or before 2022”.

Under that arrangement, Shell, which would become an independent power producer, will cover the cost of constructing the plant, which is reportedly expected to be upwards of $100 million.

BPL will in turn pay Shell to supply electricity.

“So, when you look at the construction costs, the cost of building this new plant, BPL will bear none of the costs,” BPL Chairman Dr. Donovan Moxey said in November.

Fast forward to March.

BPL officials announced the company signed a contract with Wartsila to install a new 132 MW engine power plant at Clifton that will cost approximately $95 million. The installation is expected to be completed this year and will lead to more reliable electricity supply and lower fuel charges, BPL officials said.

BPL CEO Whitney Heastie said at the time the $95 million is coming from “capital works that was deferred in favor of this new generation”.

On Sunday, BPL officials claimed it was Shell that selected Wartsila to provide the generators.

“Shell were the ones who went out through their procurement process, surveyed all the vendors out there in power plant generation and Shell selected Wartsila,” Heastie said.

Moxey chimed in: “I have records. I have an email.”

We have heard nothing from Shell in this regard.

We still do not know the terms of the agreement with Shell, Wartsila and BPL.

When pressed on this arrangement, Moxey told the media BPL has entered nondisclosure agreements with these companies.

“URCA (Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority) is well aware [as our regulators] what’s going on with Shell,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury at this time to share those documents with the press.”

Nondisclosure agreements are inappropriate public policy and out of the question. It is not enough to tell the public that what we do on your behalf is none of your business.

In opposition, FNM leaders made this point repeatedly as it related to a number of secret clauses entered into by the PLP administration on behalf of the Bahamian people. Such acts were unacceptable then, as they are now.

Fires

Another key question BPL officials dodged at the Sunday press conference was the question relating to a promised report into fires at the Clifton Pier plant that took place last September, seeking instead to convince us that those fires have nothing to do with the crisis we’re experiencing.

The first fire on September 7 caused damage to station C, which houses two of the largest generators. Days later, two more fires erupted.

The damage caused by the fires led to widespread load shedding and also a spike in electricity bills.

Asked about the fires, Heastie refused to provide information, choosing instead to dodge and insult the intelligence of journalists.

“The loss of station C is not why we are here today,” he said.

“We had 270 megawatts we had planned in our generation fleet to carry us through summer. I think that’s important for everybody to understand. It’s not as if we depended on station C to carry us through this summer. That was not the case.

“The truth is, we relied on 140 megawatts out of Blue Hills, 35 megawatts out of station B here at Clifton and 115 megawatts of the rental generation.

“We’re down to 70 megawatts at Blue Hills right now. That’s the reality that we’re dealing with right now and we want to address the pending issues of generation. We can talk about the fire, the report of the fire, at a separate press conference, but we’re here today to talk about generation.”

In his initial statement at the press conference on Sunday, Heastie advised that BPL is facing a shortfall of 40 megawatts.

The peak demand is 250 MW. BPL currently has 210, according to the CEO: 105 MW in Aggreko rental capacity, 35 MW at Clifton Pier and 70 MW at Blue Hills.

The company lost 63 MW as a result of the September 7 fire.

To suggest that that was irrelevant to the discussion on load shedding and a generation shortfall was quite frankly nonsensical.

Had the 63 MW been available, we would not have been having the conversation we are having.

While critical reforms would likely still have been needed at the power utility, consumers would not have been suffering to the point we are suffering now; businesses would not have been reporting significant losses as a result of months-long daily load shedding; mothers with infants and other young children would know that they have a reliable power supply, as would people who need electricity to power critical medical equipment and the elderly and others who need to keep certain medication refrigerated.

The public, like the media, should be curious as to why nearly one year after the September 7 fire there has been no revelation from any authority on the matter: the police have dodged the question, BPL officials have ducked the question and government officials have also failed to be accountable.

Even BPL’s regulator, the URCA, must now say why, nearly one year after it announced it will also probe the fire, there has been no reporting to the public.

“We get a report from them initially and then we go back with the questions and we do our own investigation to determine whether there was any wrongdoing by BPL,” said URCA CEO Stephen Bereaux last September.

“Accidents can happen, so the question is, is this an accident or is this something BPL could have and should have prevented?”

Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister had repeatedly promised to reveal a report on the fire probe.

In January, he said the results will soon be tabled in the House of Assembly.

“I have a report that I’m going to table shortly in Parliament,” he said, but declined to reveal any details.

Seven months have passed since his statement and still nothing.

In March, we also asked Heastie about the report into the fires.

“The government of The Bahamas would have gone ahead and initiated their own independent investigation,” he said.

“Because that was initiated by the government of The Bahamas, we’re still waiting for the release of that report. We haven’t gotten a release of that report yet, so that’s a question better asked [of] the minister.”

It’s interesting then that Heastie’s response to the same question on Sunday was that he is open to having a press conference on the fires at a later date. 

We won’t hold our breath on that one. His response was classic deflection and raised even more suspicion around the matter.

Old board

Meanwhile, the minister has crawled under the proverbial rock, making an incredible declaration that he will no longer speak with The Nassau Guardian because it is “a political instrument”.

As we noted in our editorial on Monday, the minister clearly forgets that he is accountable for matters in his portfolio such as BPL. Newspapers are one of the means through which governments account to the public on what it is doing in their name and on their behalf.

It is not a question of the minister wanting to respond to questions from this newspaper; it is his duty to do so.

Bannister has been in his feelings ever since our reporting last August about his disgraceful handling of the firings of former BPL Chairman Darnell Osborne and former BPL board members Nicola Thompson and Nick Dean.

He promised to make public information to support his claim that the firings were justified.

Like the fires, the termination of the old board is relevant to what we are seeing today.

After they were axed, Bannister informed the public that relationships among the board members had significantly deteriorated and they locked horns on almost every critical issue at “great cost to the company”, which ultimately necessitated new leadership.

We still do not know the specifics of what the minister was talking about. It is in the public interest to know. 

One year ago, Minnis announced that the government will launch an investigation into matters that necessitated the firings.

In April, he said the government signed a contract with a company the week before to commence the probe.

“No. I’m not giving you the name of the company, not yet. With time you will get that. That was signed just last week,” Minnis said.

Since then, there has been stone silence on the matter.

Are we to conclude — as Minnis did about BEC when the PLP was in office — that BPL is an FNM mess?

What we are comfortable doing is borrowing his 2015 conclusion that this BPL fiasco exposes a crisis of leadership — at every level.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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