Omar Sweeney | Road map for sustainable electricity access

Date Published: 
Tuesday, December 8, 2020 - 12:00pm
News Detail: 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the marginal increases in cost to most customers for electricity has brought the issue of electricity cost back to the forefront. It has been estimated by the Jamaica Public Service (JPS) that on a consistent basis, there are at least 180,000 households which consume electricity but are not legal consumers. This represents approximately one-third of the JPS customer base. This is a challenging situation, and certainly one that is not tenable. Any assumption, however, that the numbers represent a homogeneous group of households bent on illegally extracting electricity would be a betrayal of the myriad underlying issues that result in electricity theft. The root causes of the difficulty in providing electricity and other utility services to those in low-income communities date back to decades of social exclusion, inequality, poverty and distrust between the formal structures that exist to serve the public good. These cannot be undone without sustained investment.As a project implementation agency of the Government of Jamaica, the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) has been spearheading significant investments to holistically address the issue of electricity theft. The JSIF incorporates an integrated social intervention model adapted from best-practice solutions from India and Brazil. Our work includes projects undertaken through public-private partnership with the JPS, funded by international donors. Most recently, JSIF was vested with the responsibilities for electrification support that the Government of Jamaica (GOJ), previously provided through the former Rural Electrification Programme/National Energy Solutions Limited (NESOL).From our perspective, I will expound on some of the significant issues we have identified as barriers to residential regularisation that provide a greater propensity of theft in vulnerable communities:1. The antagonistic relationship between the utility service and residents of low-income communities;2. The cost barrier for house wiring in vulnerable communities;3. The high level of scepticism and distrust towards the regularisation process; and4. The socio-economic realities of affordability.PARTNERSHIP The JSIF and JPS partnered for electrification access following a bitter stand-off over electricity theft between the utility and a number of mostly volatile, low-income communities. Thirteen urban communities in the parishes of Kingston, St Catherine, Westmoreland, St James and Clarendon were the beneficiaries of house wiring, re-certification, energy efficiency training, and were the recipients of energy-efficient light bulbs. The project also created employment for 10 community members, who became representatives of the utility in the respective communities. The outcome of the project saw the regularisation of over 3,200 households between 2015 and 2018. As electricity regularisation does not occur in isolation, the project also included investments in road and water infrastructure, livelihood development, skills training and entrepreneurship. With this integrated community development model, JSIF addressed the deeper socio-economic issues that are critical to sustainable urban renewal.The cost to wire or on-board a house to the grid was approximately $60,000, which was often beyond the reach of most households in the communities we entered. Following the house-wiring process, there was over 90 per cent take-up among households, which was a validation that removing the cost barrier was a major element to increase access and reduce illegal abstraction. The next barrier was the pervasive matter of distrust of the public utility, stemming largely from a lack of knowledge and inadequate opportunities to have their challenges expressed. Through this intervention, we adopted the model of training and employing community youths as facilitators. They assisted households to sign up for electricity, conducted energy audits and regularly visited households for energy-management sessions. This allowed for a culture of cooperation and mutual dialogue between the JPS and the community, and we saw compliance for most communities reaching as high as 85 per cent.PREPAID SERVICE The adoption of prepaid billing in these regularised communities was also a significant game changer. Given the socio-economic issues, and the informal income, a conventional monthly light bill was not a best fit for the communities. The prepaid billing, whereby the residents were able to pay for their electricity on the go, with top-up as low as J$500, saw persons becoming better managers of their consumption. The JPS included this modality as part of their Residential Automated Metering Infrastructure, which also served a dual function – as an anti-theft infrastructure. The prepaid metering enabled the household to access in real time their consumption, which also engendered a greater level of confidence and overall buy-in.JSIF’s commitment to pursuing equity and access for low-income communities continues to drive the work that we do within the country. Presently, JSIF has partnered with the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology and the JPS in the Community Electrification Project. This will see to the facilitation of legal connections in over 700 households from communities identified as needing electrification across the island. This project represents a continuation of a crucial partnership between the Government of Jamaica and the JPS. Critical to the sustainability of the project, which will provide support to residents with low literacy and a lack of awareness about the process through support from community facilitators and ensure broad stakeholder participation in the process of engagement and regularisation of households.RECOMMENDATIONS Electrification access speaks to a broader issue of urban renewal, safety and security. Given the successes of the public-private-community partnership, electricity regularisation, and importantly, increasing legal access is an achievable goal within the right framework. From this approach, there are now best practice interventions that can form the locus of the GOJ’s push to sustainable electricity access. As a matter of sustainability, priority should be given towards developing policy and legislation for the funding of access to subsidised house-wiring services for vulnerable households. The cost barrier is a major inhibitor to the regularisation of households and a significant contributor to instances of electricity theft. Any kind of partnership or intervention in these communities must also engage community facilitators, employ an integrated model, and adapt payment options to the consumers’ financial limitations through prepaid metering. The projects developed and executed, which have largely been successful, have affirmed the value in scaling up this integrated model, and ensuring that this model is sustained as a national priority, which collectively benefits all. Sustained energy access will reduce overall cost for all and further propel us along a key target of Vision 2030.Omar Sweeney is managing director of the Jamaica Social Investment Fund.