A recent press release from Canadian-owned utility Fortis TCI, contradicting an earlier pronouncement by the Rufus Ewing-led government that the company was considering a change in part from inefficient diesel generation to renewable or green energy, has reopened debate on a number of related issues, including the cost of electricity in the TCI and the relationship between successive TCI governments and Canadian firms.
Fortis TCI headquarters in Providenciales
Fortis Inc. is the largest investor-owned gas and electric distribution utility in Canada. Its regulated utilities account for 90 percent of total assets and serve more than 2.4 million customers across Canada and in New York State and the Caribbean – Belize, Cayman Islands and the TCI.
In 2011, the government of Belize expropriated the approximately 70% ownership interest of Fortis Inc. in Belize Electricity Ltd (BEL) an integrated electric utility and the principal distributor in Belize.
Fortis still owns Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL), a non-regulated hydroelectric generation business that operates three hydroelectric generating facilities in Belize. There is an ongoing controversy over a secret and possibly unenforceable agreement between the then government of Belize and Fortis over alleged pre-emption rights in relation to national waterways.
In 2013, in opposing a proposed $1.5 billion acquisition of CH Energy Group in New York, a local grassroots group pointed to what they say is Fortis’ poor record in dealing with projects in Belize and British Columbia and citing “misinformation and a lack of trust” on the part of Fortis.
Meanwhile, Fortis TCI has possibly the highest cost of electricity in the western hemisphere and five times higher than those charged by the closest mainland utility Florida Power and Light (FPL). Further, the company returns to its Canadian parent a profit averaging $1,000 per year per household from a customer base numbering only 9,000 consumers, which equates to more than $80 per month per household in pure profit.
Notwithstanding the extraordinarily high profit margins enjoyed by Fortis, the company is permitted to import supplies and equipment duty free and constantly upgrades its distribution system in order to lower its long term costs.
While the internal operating statements of Fortis TCI have yet to be made public, it has long been suspected that the utility uses accelerated depreciation to write off capital expenditures quickly and therefore reduce their publicly reported profits. US accounting practices require that capital equipment and assets be depreciated more closely in line with the life expectancy of the asset, reducing the annual write off and therefore showing a more accurate, and possibly higher net profit.
The latest Fortis policy on renewable energy sources puts a halt to the hope of generating power from wind energy from the prevailing trade winds or from solar panels.
Fortis defended its new position on a reported failure of German green power efforts. However, Germany is a northern European country with far less solar energy available, which in spite of huge labour costs and social benefits is now expected to raise its electricity rates to less than $0.09 per Kwh or just 1/6th the cost of Fortis power.
Fortis purchased the former assets of Provo Power Company (PPC) in 2006, three years after the PNP came to power in a 2003 by-election. At the time of the purchase, then premier Michael Misick denied any knowledge of the buyout saying he had nothing to do with the buyout and could not forecast the fate of the employees. However, the stamp duty on the purchase would have yielded the country upwards of $9 million and was subject to negotiation with the Misick government and undoubtedly Misick himself.
At the time of the buyout, PPC was charging $0.26 per Kwh and now Fortis charges an additional surcharge that almost doubles the old rate to $0.51 per Kwh.
Last year, during the first year of the newly elected Progressive National Party (PNP) government, Fortis purchased the Grand Turk power company, Turks and Caicos Utilities from an American firm.
Following the initial Fortis buyout in 2006, the Misick government, which then included current premier Dr Rufus Ewing as director of medical services, proceeded to enter into a hugely expensive and controversial healthcare contract with another Canadian company, Interhealth Canada.
Interest in the Misick connection with Canada has also been revived by some so far unconfirmed but informed reports that he may be a person of interest so far as the Canadian authorities are concerned.
Speculation that the Canadians may have had a hand in Misick’s travel back to the TCI following his recent extradition from Brazil has led to questions as to whether this was designed to protect or pursue significant political and other figures in Canada.
In fact, Canadian interest in the TCI has been around since 1917, when then Canadian prime minister Robert Borden suggested that Canada annex the islands. In 2004, Nova Scotia’s three parties voted unanimously to let the TCI join their province if they ever became part of Canada.
Similar discussions were held by former premier Misick.
As recently as last year, Canadian MP Peter Goldring wanted to revive the proposal for the TCI to join Canada, following the return of elected self-government in the territory in November 2012.
Goldring has been a consistent advocate of increased cultural and economic ties between the TCI and Canada for more than ten years but the idea was dropped when Britain imposed direct rule in 2009, following a commission of inquiry that uncovered widespread and systemic government corruption in the territory.
Goldring, who has visited the islands several times, said they would fit in nicely with the rest of Canada.
But Canada stands to gain more than simply a vacation destination from such a union, he said: “From my perspective, certainly it goes far behind sun and sand. South Caicos Island, for example, is on a deep water channel. It could be readily developed into a deep-water port, which would give Canada tremendous advantage for trans-shipment throughout the entire region.”
He added the islands would be a strategic location from which to increase engagement with Haiti and Cuba.