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Belco needs to provide answers for Black Friday

Island-wide power outage at Washington Mall (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The new owner of the Ascendant Group and its Belco subsidiary probably did not expect the first event of its new ownership to be an island-wide blackout. Nor can it be blamed for it.

But the lack of explanation by Belco for the catastrophic outage is within its hands to fix, and the Algonquin group should move quickly to ensure the company explains, in as much detail as possible, what went wrong.

No one expects perfection from a power company, and there will always be events outside the company’s control such as hurricanes and storms that will cause outages from time to time.

Nor, while the company continues to use fossil fuels, can people reasonably expect total price stability when the price of oil and natural gas are determined by global markets.

But the public, and almost everyone in Bermuda, are Belco customers and therefore have a stake in the company, and should expect reliable service. When it is not delivered, as it manifestly was not on Friday, the least they deserve is a forthright and quick explanation.

That does not mean the explanation need be complete. Belco is right to investigate. The final explanation may require further detail, but to say nothing except that it was not a mechanical problem is not good enough. It defies belief that the company’s managers do not yet have an inkling of what went wrong.

Bermuda presents itself to the world as a developed, modern nation with an infrastructure that can support highly skilled businesses and individuals. The reputational harm done to the island when those businesses are crippled for hours is simply unacceptable. This is especially so when Bermuda is making gargantuan efforts to encourage hi-tech businesses to come to the island. These businesses by their very nature use up large amounts of electricity and must serve their customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While a few companies had their own generators, and essential services were also able to operate without too many problems, it is too much to ask for every business or commercial building to have back-up generator power for what should be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

For private residences, there are many older people who are dependent on oxygen machines and other electrical equipment to stay alive. Not all can afford or are able to have built-in generators, and they should not be expected to pull out a portable generator and turn it on at the drop of a hat.

Perhaps even more severely affected were the retail businesses and restaurants, which, after an already catastrophic year, desperately needed a strong pre-Christmas weekend. Instead, they had to turn customers away and cancel lunch reservations. In some cases, these customers would have returned, but many might not have. It is impossible to know at this point whether this was the last nail in the coffin for many businesses, but we will know in January when the out-of-business signs start going up.

New Ascendant president Wayne Caines was at pains to point out that this was the first island-wide power outage since the Belco fire 15 years ago.

And it is true that power was restored in Hamilton by about 2.30pm and throughout the island by the end of the day. Once again, the workers at Belco stepped up, just as they do after hurricanes and major storms.

This criticism is not pointed at them. But it is pointed at the management of the company and, indirectly, the new owner. An island-wide power outage, absent of extreme weather and the like, is not acceptable, even when it occurs “only“ every 15 years.

But when it happens, the company should be straight up in explaining what went wrong, what steps were taken to put it right and what steps are now being put in place to ensure it does not happen again.

Bermuda deserves no less.

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Published December 22, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 21, 2020 at 2:11 pm)

Belco needs to provide answers for Black Friday

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