GPL should have done better to reduce transmission and distribution losses
Stabroek News
March 15, 2002

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An Open Letter to the People and Government of Guyana

In the early 1970's, Guyana was a country of great promise for Guyanese and non Guyanese alike. People came from all over some to farm along the Linden Soesdyke highway, some to retire in "peace and security", and some, including many of our Caribbean brothers and sisters to drink in the heady atmosphere of progress. UWI students volunteered their time to work on the Georgetown Lethem road. Guyana was regarded as blazing the trail for the post independence decolonization of the English speaking Caribbean as the nation moved to take control of the Commanding Heights of the Economy! And for those of us old enough to remember, everything functioned including the utilities i.e. water, electricity and telephones. The telephone service was operated as a privately owned company, but since the 1950's the British Guiana government, under the Premiership of the late Dr. Cheddi Jagan, had acquired the assets of the Canadian owned Demerara Electricity Company and provided electricity as an essential service. Just being a Guyanese was a source of tremendous pride. There can be little question about the gross mismanagement which has destroyed not just the economy but has contributed to the disintegration of the very fabric of our society, and the consequent depth of the apathy into which we have sunk.

At about the same time the oil producing countries of the Middle East successfully took control of the commanding heights of their economies. This was more than two decades after Dr. Mossadeq, then Prime Minister of Iran, had nationalized the Iranian Petroleum industry and was assassinated for his pains in a CIA sponsored operation. The OPEC countries still control their Commanding Heights. The result of this control was the oil price explosions of 1973 and 1978. These led almost everywhere else to a search for alternative energy supplies including renewable energy systems but more importantly, an emphasis on energy efficiency.

In the early 1980's studies conducted in the English speaking Caribbean revealed that the largest sources of demand for petroleum products were (1) grid connected electricity and (2) road transportation. Little could be done about road transportation in the short run, but the electricity sector promised quick and rewarding results. At that time grid connected electricity consumed more than 40 % of all petroleum imports. Worse, the inefficiency of energy use in that sector was outstanding. In general transmission and distribution (T&D) losses were between 20% 30% and in Guyana, about 40%. Very brief studies conducted by regional consultants in each country identified the T&D loss centres and within one year with relatively marginal additional investment T&D losses were reduced to the 12% 14% range. Unfortunately the chaotic state of GEC in Guyana made similar work impossible. (In technical terms, power could not be guaranteed on any feeder for the required 24 consecutive hours to conduct the identification tests).

Work was done also on generation losses but the reduction of these losses required much higher investment levels, which could not be attended at that time, although some loss reduction was achieved with the introduction of "good housekeeping practices". Since that time T&D losses have been further reduced to less than 8% in Barbados, to less than 12% elsewhere except in Dominica, which is under Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) management, where it is around 20%. In fact, no self respecting electricity utility is prepared to accept double digit T&D losses. For us in Guyana, where estimated T&D losses are reported as unchanged in the last 20 years (still almost 40%), there can be no justification for a tariff increase, especially under an Agreement which has never been tabled in the House of Assembly and therefore is not available for public scrutiny and debate. More importantly however this Agreement for privatising an essential service is essentially beyond the purview of the Public Utilities Commission.

There are two significant lessons to be learned from the Caribbean experience in this sector. The first is the rapidity with which T&D losses can be reduced to tolerable levels at relatively little cost. The second is that these reductions were achieved by local i.e. indigenous technical and administrative personnel paid at normal national salary levels without any exorbitant management fees paid to any extra national group or groups. Something seems to be catastrophically lacking in the management capability of Guyana Power and Light.

Recently a lot of attention has been paid to the enormously high levels of T&D losses but nothing has appeared publicly with regard to the efficiency of the generating plant. Would GPL or some other "responsible" body care to indicate what is the performance of the generation plant in terms of British Thermal Units (BTUs) or in other words, the heat rate i.e. BTUs per KWH produced. This would be an interesting bit of information and is the universal yardstick of generation plant efficiency. I would not want to judge solely on the basis of T&D losses, but if as the Caribbean experience shows, the inefficient centres most amenable to correction have not been adequately addressed, could too much be expected from the high cost areas?

And now to the Commercial Department. There seems to be little coherence in either meter reading or billing. Disconnection crews appear with thick wads of computer printouts demanding to see the last receipted payment. Names have appeared on more than one occasion when the bill had been paid more than one week previously. What happens if the consumer is not at home when the crew arrives? Do they make an appointment to return or do they leave a calling card i.e. a loose bit of wire dangling from the meter? Computer printouts are not gospel. The fundamental computer principle remains GIGO garbage in garbage out. How many consumers have the time to visit GPL's offices, spending hours moving slowly from chair to chair until face to face with the computer person only to be shown the same garbage in the computer which "proves" the consumer to be mistaken. For more than 20 years, a simple computer programme has been available which profiles each consumer. Whenever the billing does not fit the profile the computer kicks out the bill and someone is sent to check the meter and the connections. This is more than a courtesy to the consumer but the industry's way of minimizing non technical losses i.e. theft.

Perversely, this particular inefficiency may well be a source of hope for all of us. If it continues, then the extension and maturing of the rural electrification schemes may well constitute the ramparts from which the attack is launched. Sooner or later, enough consumers would become angry enough with inefficient and capricious GPL to slough off their apathy and take direct action even if our official representatives, the Government, do not. We may not be able to take control of the commanding heights again but certainly we can reclaim our dignity. Privatisation cannot and must not mean recolonization, and electricity remains an essential service and therefore by definition must be affordable and non exploitative. Of course, it must also be reliable. Unlike Dr Mossadeq who needed lots of help we seem intent on bringing ourselves down even further.

As any daytime traveller to Timehri and beyond must have noted, GPL must be commended for tidying up the parapet and painting the perimeter fences at its Garden of Eden premises. But do we need such high priced "experts" for this? The incidence of 2 3 day power outages seems to have diminished. After more than three years, the frequency of destructive power surges and short duration (15 30 minutes) outages seem undiminished. And the frequency of collapsing utility poles in Guyana would make any self respecting Caribbean hurricane proud, especially since the countries in the Caribbean import their wallaba utility poles from Guyana.

C. F. Granger