Column: Transfer Of BELCO To Foreign Owners

April 22, 2020

[Opinion column written by Sir John Swan & Michael Murphy]

The decision on whether Algonquin Power Utilities Company [Algonquin] is acceptable to the Bermuda people as the 100% foreign owner determining our future fate with respect to the control of our most important utility could not be approaching at a more troubled uncertain economic time in Bermuda’s long history.

The Regulatory Authority [Authority] has requested public comments on the transfer of control due by May 3rd. We had hope that the Authority, Ascendant/Belco, and /or the prospective buyer would’ve provided specific answers to questions we have had outstanding for the past nine months.

Instead, we were unable to see the Algonquin submission to the Authority despite the fact that it was prepared as a public document with any sensitive parts redacted by the lawyers for the company. We had no opportunity to discuss with either Ascendant/Belco, the Authority or the proposed buyer specific answers to our questions.

The questions remain as follows:

What is the specific plan of Algonquin to lower prices for the customer?

So far only vague statements have appeared that savings may emerge for the customer at some point in the future. With the Authority still committed to giving an 8% return to Belco on any depreciable assets of the company at a time when world interest rates are either zero or negative, creates an enormous incentive to follow the old power company model of adding as many depreciable assets to its base as possible to get an automatic non transparent built in profit that is on the backs of the customers rates. Belco applied for a base increase in depreciable assets over a year ago at a proposed $420 million. What base amount was approved by the Authority?

What specific renewable plan does Algonquin have for Bermuda to cut our dependency on fossil fuel?

No specific plan has been presented. The $5 million offer to set up a foundation to STUDY renewable energy for Bermuda is merely window dressing in this very large proposed buyout of $370 million, plus assuming substantial existing debt.

Bermuda today can and will rely on the technology that has been developed in the world already. The cost efficient solar panels to produce renewable energy and Electric Vehicle battery systems that can run the car but also feed the office or home are two existing alternatives to by-pass the power company if the local utility rates become too high. This will push the power costs up for those who can not afford the personal capital costs of these alternatives now being sold in other countries.

Algonquin presents itself to the Bermuda people as a 90% renewable oriented cutting edge power company. Actually, 52% of its total renewable production is hydroelectric power and almost all of the remaining is solar power composed of large fields of panels covering enormous acreage. Bermuda, as a small densely populated Island has neither hydroelectric power or the space for Algonquin’s solar renewable models. In addition, Algonquin has no experience in a hurricane prone jurisdiction.

We believe that in the past year Belco has demonstrated its ability, a firm commitment to renewables, the Integrated Resource Plan, and it’s pride as a company to satisfy the electricity needs of Bermuda without the need of being sold to a foreign controlling overseer at a premium cost. It states in its recent financials that its objective is to become the best electric utility in the Atlantic.

According to its latest financial releases Belco has:

  • completed the 56 MW installation of the new turbine engines which it states should by themselves satisfy Bermuda’s electricity needs for the foreseeable future
  • completed the 10 MW battery storage system to reduce spinning reserve fuel costs and ..made other substantial savings in more efficiently managing the business. Belco has also
  • implemented an advanced metering system and is improving the grid system to be able to deal with more renewables accessing the grid.

All of the above have been accomplished by Belco on it’s own balance sheet, under its existing capital and debt financing arrangements with primarily local management and employees and with existing shareholders, in a company that is still majority controlled by Bermudians who receive annual dividends.

Meanwhile the islands power needs and Belco sales from 2015 to 2019 decreased by total of 8% over the period. Last year the electricity sales were down 3.3% or $4.9 million. Power usage was down by 13,700,000 Kwh.or nearly 2% last year.

Bringing in a foreign owner at a substantial premium price of $36 a share will in the long run only increase the drain on our most valuable foreign exchange reserves necessary to permit the local economy to thrive. The premium price and existing debt must eventually be repaid in foreign currency; in dividends to the foreign owner which only can come on the backs of the Bermudian rate paying customers.

If the sale goes through, there is no assurance that the proceeds of any of the funds from the sale will be reinvested in the Bermuda economy. The foreign shareholders estimated to own more than 40% of Ascendant/Belco will take their money out of Bermuda for certain. There is no indication and little likelihood that the Bermudian shareholders will reinvest their sales proceeds in the local economy, especially with the declining state of our economy at this particular time.

With the most unfortunate recent complete shutdown of the tourist industry, its infrastructure of the airport, hotels, tourist accommodation, restaurants, as well as most of the offices in Hamilton as a result of the virus, power demands, Belco profits, and power usage, are likely to have dramatically plunged as well.

The timing of the return of the tourist industry is an unknown factor most of which is beyond the control of Bermudians. As of today the impact does not appear to be a short term event. Whether the traditional methods of doing business in Bermuda will return with as much need for Belco power is an open question.

We believe that caution & prudence during this troubled time combined with Belco’s great strides forward in the past year and its now firm commitment to renewables demonstrates that Bermuda does not need a foreign overseer to satisfy its power needs. An approval of the transfer of control of Belco by the Authority to Algonquin would be a most unfortunate gamble of the economic future of Bermuda.

- Sir John Swan & Michael Murphy


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Comments (5)

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  1. Proven says:

    Not opposed to sale – but does he have to be the sell everything guy?

  2. Carole says:

    Simple question: What does the average Bermudian gain by the sale of Belco to foreigners?

  3. rodney smith says:

    Are there Bermudians prepared to buy Belco? Is the Government prepared to nationalize Belco? The foreign exchange argument is limited . Are we prepared to do away with the Bda dollar and only use the U.S. dollar ? Renewables are a good talking point , but let it be known that Belco will be burning fuel for years to come .Burrow the money from the pension fund and pay it forward as we go . I don’t see the lights going out in Bermuda anytime soon .

    • Lights on says:

      Fact: Bermudians already own most of Belco.

      Why on earth would the government nationalize it? And you suggest taking money from the dramatically underfunded pension fund to buy it? You must be masochistic

      Can you name any large capital investment the gov’t has done right in the last 20 years, other than through PPP. I can’t think of any. Then try to think how bad the government finances would be if they spent the public pension money on it…

  4. Phil says:

    Regarding the hurricane issue, the people Algonquin sent to assist in the last hurricane were well experienced and did a brilliant job