Minister urges Belco to lower prices
Finance Minister Bob Richards has accused Belco of charging too much for electricity and has urged it to give some of its profits back to customers by lowering prices.
Mr Richards claimed the company was using its “monopoly power” to grow its business and pay dividends to its shareholders, while cash-strapped consumers suffered from its high charges.
The Royal Gazette: “They are a private enterprise, they are entitled to make a profit, but when those profits are used to buy other businesses and, of course, they still have money left over to pay dividends, you say to yourself perhaps some of that profit could have been given back to customers
“Perhaps they shouldn’t be charging us what they are charging us.”
Belco’s parent company Ascendant Group hit back at his comments yesterday, with a spokeswoman saying the cost of electricity here was primarily driven by the price of fuel oil on the global market.
She said electricity rates in Bermuda did not “support diversification” by Ascendant and it was using a combination of earnings from across its group of companies, as well as investor funds and debt, to expand.
As for dividends, the spokeswoman said: “Investors in any business will only invest if they receive a fair return on their investments.”
Economic Development Minister Grant Gibbons, meanwhile, said while his Cabinet colleague was “simply voicing the frustration that many people feel about high energy costs”, he had seen a willingness on Belco’s part to be involved with efforts to make energy more affordable.
“I think a lot of people see Belco as the enemy but I think we have to see them as part of the solution and they will need to be part of the solution,” said Dr Gibbons, who is responsible for the Department of Energy.
The Ascendant Group has seven operating companies: Belco, Bermuda Gas & Utility, iFM Ltd, iEPC Ltd, Air Care Ltd, Purenergy Renewables Ltd, and Ascendant Properties Ltd.
Mr Richards said: “I think there is something intrinsically unbalanced about a company that has a monopoly using monopoly power to buy third-party companies.
“If they have that kind of money left over, and are still able to pay dividends, it says to me that we are paying too much money [for electricity].
“It’s a private enterprise, I understand that [but] because of the nature of it, it strays into public policy. I don’t know anywhere where power costs as much as it costs in Bermuda.”
The One Bermuda Alliance MP recalled how the United Bermuda Party Government of the late 1990s “broke the monopoly” in the telecommunications industry, when he was Telecommunications Minister.
And while he suggested it wasn’t “necessarily practical to talk about having another Belco in Bermuda”, it was important to have tougher regulation of the company.
“Their interests are not necessarily, as a company, in sync with the public interest. Our job as government is the public interest.”
The Minister admitted he couldn’t “reel off solutions” for driving down energy costs but said there was a will within the new Government to find a way.
“I’m just sort of laying down markers here insofar as my job as Finance Minister to oversee the Bermuda economy,” he said. “I believe that this is a critical factor in how we are competitive as a jurisdiction.
“I really do believe there are a list of reasons why Bermuda has become uncompetitive and has had four, going on five, years of economic contraction.
“On that list is the cost of doing business and the cost of living and fundamental to those costs is the cost of energy. I won’t stop talking about it and I won’t stop looking at ways to do something about it.”
Shadow Economic Development Minister Glenn Blakeney said soaring energy costs were something the Progressive Labour Party Government tried to get to grips with, adding: “I don’t think we did. That was a great disappointment.”
But he said he saw a “level of disingenuousness” in the Finance Minister’s comments because “we are in a capitalist market, driven by meeting projections”.
“No one wants to sacrifice the profit margin. People invest in companies to be paid dividends, so the bottom line is that those that are charged with the corporate well-being of the company are looking to drive the bottom line. They aren’t in business to be socially conscientious.”
He said electricity was an essential need, so to make it affordable the “only way you can encourage the free enterprise system to work is to encourage competition”.
The Ascendant spokeswoman said the group shared Government’s concern about the high cost of living here and the impact that the cost of electricity had on that and on doing business.
She said any new initiative in the energy industry should focus on a reduction in energy prices and that it was a “strategic imperative” for Ascendant to work with Government and others to “increase the efficient use of energy, reduce costs and find alternatives to traditional electricity production”.
The spokeswoman said Belco had no influence over the price of fuel oil globally but was always looking to get the best rates and had saved $5.9 million since January 2010 with efforts to hedge its fuel purchases.
She added: “Electricity rates in Bermuda do not support diversification by the Ascendant Group. Electricity rates and the return on utility investment are regulated by the Energy Commission.
“The current return on utility investment of less than four percent is now well below average international accepted rates of return, which are closer to ten percent, as well as previously acceptable Bermuda rates of return.
“Ascendant is using a combination of earnings from across the group of companies, as well as investor funds and debt to expand its service and product offerings beyond the traditional electricity generation and delivery product, to other energy infrastructure solutions which will combine to bring better efficiencies and, in the long term, lower overall prices.”
Economic Development Minister Grant Gibbons said yesterday that reducing energy costs was a priority for Government, with several alternatives to fossil fuel being explored for Bermuda.
They include wind, wave, photovoltaic solar panels, solar thermal energy and combined heat and power plants.
Dr Gibbons, whose Ministry includes the Department of Energy, said there was a “real prospect” of a solar farm being built on the old navy munitions pier at the airport — an area jutting into Castle Harbour sometimes referred to as “the Finger”.
“We have a number of proposals where people are interested in putting in a solar farm down there,” he told
The Royal Gazette.
“[The idea is to] cover that [area] with solar cells and use that to generate electricity, which is different to what Belco is generating in Pembroke.”
The Minister said comments made by his Cabinet colleague Bob Richards about Belco’s prices being too high were understandable given the “frustration that many people feel”.
But he added: “We see Belco as being part of the solution. I would say at this point I haven’t seen a lack of willingness to participate and be involved in this process on their part.”
The Minister said: “The issue of high energy costs is right across the board, whether you are an individual householder, a business or, in fact, Government.
“Our current budget for energy — which is not all Belco — is something in the order of $20 million [a year] so Government is invested in this as well. I think we all understand, because we are all paying.”