ELECTRICITY theft continues to hit the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) hard, amounting to US$32 million so far this year. In fact, so pervasive has been the illegal activity that the company is acknowledging that it is running out of options to stem it.
"It's at a high rate, and I see it increasing, simply because as electricity rates increase... We have run out of options, we have just run out of options," Kelly Tomblin, JPS's president and CEO told the Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange yesterday.
"We have put in the metres, we have a war room now and inside there, as people discuss the issue, you see the tension building around the fruitlessness of their efforts," said Tomblin, who described the theft of electricity as a symptom of the social problems affecting the country.
Electricity theft has been a perennial problem for the JPS and is most visible in urban and rural inner-city communities. However, Tomblin and the JPS's Head of Corporate Communications Winsome Callum were yesterday quick to point out that people from high-income as well as middle-income groups are also involved in the theft of electricity, primarily through more sophisticated methods.
In recent years, the company has been very public in its thrust to install anti-theft devices in several inner-city communities as part of its efforts to clamp down on losses.
But those efforts, Tomblin revealed yesterday, have barely touched the surface of the problem, as an increasing number of individuals are stealing electricity from the company's network.
"As I understand it, we have had a group of people, for whatever reason, who have never paid an electricity bill. No technology in the world can change that; it is a socio-economic issue and it requires very strong political and police will to change that, and it requires something deep," said Tomblin, even as she pointed to ongoing efforts to address the issue through government agencies such as the Planning Institute of Jamaica.
She also asserted that the company will continue to explore strategies that can be implemented to strenghten the existing methods used to remove illegal connections.
"Taking down throw-ups is the silliest kind of activity we have been involved in since I got here. We take them down, they put them back up; we take them down, they put them back up," said Tomblin as she lamented the amount of productive time being spent by the company's linesmen and other personnel to remove illegal connections.
"I shouldn't know a thing about anti-theft metres — maybe a little tiny bit — but now I have become an anti-theft expert," Tomblin said.
The JPS CEO, who took up the position earlier this year, said the situation is being compounded by the refusal of some JPS employees — due to personal safety reasons — to carry out disconnections in areas where electricity theft has been identified.
According to her, the company's employees have, on occasions, been threatened and as a result are fearful, even when they are accompanied by the police. "They say their lives have been threatened, their families are afraid. Guess what you have to do as the employee? You have to tell on who is stealing, you have to be a witness," said Tomblin, who explained that the company's employees are unwilling to go before the courts to point fingers at individuals caught stealing electricity.
She said she understands the employees' plight and therefore will not force them to go into certain areas.
Tomblin told the Monday Exchange that the situation in some of the country's inner-city communities is being compounded by the proliferation of thugs.
These thugs have been filling the spaces left by many of the area leaders or dons who have been killed, imprisoned or who have been on the run due to increased efforts by the security forces to nab them.
While the theft of electricity continues, the JPS executive is emphasising that its legitimate customers are continuing to pay for a portion of the energy consumed by electricity thieves as theft forms a significant component of total system losses each year.
According to Tomblin, legitimate JPS customers are paying for 17 per cent of the 25 per cent system losses recorded each year.
While stating that she understands the socio-economic challenges faced by some of those who steal electricity, Tomblin is questioning whether assistance shouldn't be provided under some form of social programme.
"How do we reduce theft without a social programme, because we know certain people just can't afford it. It can't be one size fits all, there are people that we electrify who can't afford it," Tomblin lamented.
She is also highlighting the need for the re-socialisation of people who believe they don't have to pay for the service.