Let There Be Light!
Rise and Fall of BELCO

April 23rd, 2014

When I was a young child very few people on Bonacca had electricity. The rest of us used lamps and lanterns for light.  In the 1950s the government sent us a little 20-kilowatt generator set. I remember it quite well, because it was the first engine I ever saw with both spark plugs and diesel injectors. The engine would start up on gasoline, then after it warmed up we would  shift a lever to switch it over to diesel. Haley Osgood was the chief engineer, and I was sort of his helper.

We ran the generator only from 6-10 p.m. In those days almost all the streets on Bonacca were bridges, and one wrong step could land you in the water. So we devised a system where we would blink the lights three times at 9:45 to let people know the lights were about to be turned off, so if they wanted to head home they had better get started.

By the time 10 percent of the houses on the island were hooked up, we knew the generator was woefully undersized. People joked that they needed a good flashlight to find the light bulbs powered by our little generator.  Years later the municipality bought more generators, and the system got a lot better. The lights stayed on from early morning until midnight, still not the round-the-clock power the rest of the world was accustomed to.

In 1986 Charlie Haylock and Rafael Zapata took the initiative to form an electric company to supply the town’s needs. They raised funds by selling shares to the whole town.  I was amazed that so many people were willing to participate in this venture.  I was given the privilege of naming the company – Bonacca Electric Company (BELCO). Others wanted to call it  BECO, but my choice was approved by the members.

Within a few years BELCO had extended its service to other parts of the island, including Savana Bight and Mangrove Bight. BELCO brought in bigger generators, which during peak hours provided about 90-95 percent of capacity.

Conventional wisdom is that it was poor management that ruined BELCO. But there were many factors that need to be considered.  Hurricane Mitch inflicted huge damages on the company’s infrastructure in 1998. The price of diesel fuel sky-rocketed. The island’s economy declined. These were the main reasons BELCO went bankrupt.

As the price of diesel went ever higher, reflected in the fuel adjustment charges on utility bills, people cut back on their electricity use. In an attempt to save on fuel, BELCO started a rationing program, which did not go over well with the gentry.  BELCO disconnected customers who did not pay their bills within 15 days. Some people could not afford to have it reconnected.  Electricity usage fell off drastically. The big generators that were needed a only few years earlier became a liability. They consumed more fuel than was warranted for the amount of electricity demanded by the island.

A new company is now in charge of BELCO. The company is called TESA. That’s about all I could find out about them.  They offered shareholders Lps 100 a share, which was the original price of a share back in 1986. Back then, though, Lps 100 was worth US$50. Now it’s worth US$5.  I unloaded my shares many years ago. But those who held onto them ended up losing  a big chunk of money. As one shareholder said, “It’s either take what they offer or get nothing, because the banks were going to put an embargo in place within the month.”

I hope the new company is successful and can somehow put in place a system that will make electricity on the island an affordable commodity again.

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