Return to the dark ages with Union Fenosa

The power company got suspicious when we tried to conserve energy. Now they want us to pay for it.

As our friends and associates know, we are highly supportive of Nicaragua. It is our chosen home and we are involved in many local and expat activities here. It is with regret that I find myself writing this story, which illustrates how corruption here takes many forms at many levels.

It is even sadder when a major company like our power company, Unión Fenosa, can act against a customer without conscience, fabricating unsubstantiated statements and assuming we will roll over and quietly pay because they said so. Let me go back in time and relate the events that require me to tell this story in hopes others will not be subjected to the same circumstances.

It all started last May, with a notice slipped under our door. It was from our friendly power company requesting our presence in Managua to examine our old electric power meter for irregularities. They had just replaced our old electric meter. They did not want to make any accusations without our presence. I took the notice to our lawyer who recommended we just ignore the request, which we did.

In our ignorance, we thought the problem would just go away. But apparently the power company was a little short on revenue and why not just go after a customer that could not fight back?

A couple weeks later, two men from the power company showed up at the door and said they were going to replace the power meter again since it was not showing enough power usage. They informed us that we are using much more power than their meter indicated. I asked a few logical questions like, “How can your meter not be showing the amount of power going into our home?” and “Are you suggesting we had somehow rewired our home to allow us to run a secret power connection to the street?” Or “Are you assuming we have another power source in the home, like a hydroelectric system or a small nuclear reactor?”

They did not understand our humor, and I was becoming upset when they were really suggesting we were cheating on our power usage.

It is true that we use very little power. We had not used our air conditioning in several years, and the only major usage we had besides the fans and lights was the refrigerator, pool pump and washing machine. Electricity is expensive here so we had learned how to be conserve power. Our normal monthly bill is around $100. For a large home, that is low here.

Anyway, we were on our third power meter, but Union Fenosa was still not satisfied. Several weeks later, they showed up again and requested to be allowed into our home. Wanting to satisfy any doubts they may have, we let them in. They proceeded to inventory every electrical device we had which filled up several pages, then they added entries from a table they had that showed average kilowatt hour usage.

You would be surprised how many 60 watt bulbs you have in a typical home. Adding all of this up they informed us how much power we must be using.

At this point I did not know if they were that stupid or thought that we were that stupid to believe their chaotic logic. We explained that a washing machine does not run 24 hours a day, nor do we have every fan and light on 24 hours a day, nor do we run the air conditioners 24 hours a day.

But it was like talking to the village idiots. To be fair, I knew they were only acting under orders from an overzealous supervisor who would probably pocket half the money if we had paid some ludicrous electric bill based on their speculations.

The scariest part was knowing these are the same people connecting power to the homes on our street. Perhaps I should consider more home insurance!

We thought our logic had prevailed, but we forgot we were living in Nicaragua. A special power bill arrived a couple weeks later showing we owed 72,000 córdobas (more than $3,000) for power that should have been used above and beyond what was showing on their power meter and our monthly power bill.

Non-payment would mean our power would be cut, both the actual power shown on their meter and the magical power we were generating or stealing in the home. We took the bill to our lawyer.

Our lawyer informed us that the power company does this time to time in the hopes someone would actually pay the bill. He immediately got a court order that prevented the power company from cutting off our electricity until the matter was resolved. The procedure required us to go through several levels of bureaucracy and judgments and eventually it goes to an equivalent of a consumer protection board.

At that point, it is usually ruled that the bill was bogus. But unfortunately, the process could take six months. We were given a court order to show power company employees that they could not cut off our power until the issue was resolved. Of course, our legal bill would be several hundred dollars.

Over the next few months, they tried to shut off our power but we just waved the court order in front them. Then one day in December, we came home to find we had no power. I looked outside the house and found the power cables to our home missing. When they mean cut the power here, they literally cut the cables. Sometimes we see our neighbors climbing up the power poles and reconnecting their cables so they have these same issues.

We called our lawyer who could not believe they disconnected us without notification (he must not be from Nicaragua). He immediately went to the power company and showed the court order and demanded they reconnect us.

Then we received another call from our lawyer. The power company refuses to reconnect the power until we paid their fictitious bill. He then went to the government agency that oversees the utility companies, but apparently one cannot challenge the power company because the Sandinista government owns 16% and so cannot rule against themselves. They suggest we have an independent contractor reconnect the lines, which sounds illegal to me, but since everything has been illegal so far, we thought what the heck?

The contractor showed up but it was a little difficult for him to reconnect us because the power company has removed the entire length of the old electric cables. And of course, the contractor must borrow my ladders because he does not have any. Anyway, we have power within a few minutes, and then it was just a matter of waiting for our ruling from the consumer board on Dec. 23.

Then on Jan. 17, eight months after all this began, our lawyer notified us that we lost the ruling against Unión Fenosa and they also state someone must have altered our power meters (remember, three different meters). But there is good news, they will reduce the 72,000 córdoba bill by 25% and allow us to pay in installments. How much fairer could they be? And all this time I had thought Unión Fenosa was being unfair!

We are now pondering what to do. Sure we could just pay the bill, but then we have admitted guilt and worse, indicating that Unión Fenosa can do this whenever they wish against anyone they wish. And how do we know they won’t just present another outrageous bill to us sometime in the future?

We do try to avoid confrontational situations, but we have no choice but to make waves this time. Remember that during this time, we still received our monthly power bills, which we always promptly paid and our meter had been replaced three times.

In the meantime we are notifying the various news organizations and possibly the embassy to see if anything can be done to stop this travesty. We may be naïve, but we are hoping they can be shamed into being reasonable and logical.

The saddest part is if they are that blatant in their fraudulent practices, how many monthly electrical bills are simply padded or are grossly inaccurate?

Remember, this is happening in Nicaragua, but Unión Fenosa is a Spanish company with Nicaraguan employees.

The author of this article asked that his real name be withheld for fear of more reprisals from Unión Fenosa. If you wish to reach him, put a comment below with your email address.

 

  • Tim

    This isn’t an isolated case. Unfortunately, it’s a very expensive and frustrating losing battle. The question is what really can be done in which one fairly pays for the actual energy consumption. I’ve been told Union Fenosa specifically targets accounts that have a “gringo” name assigned to them. Better to open an account under the name of Felipe Espinoza. Sad, but true.

    • Gerd Schnepel

      Not “Felipe Espinoza”, but Felipe Fenosa!

  • Pedro Arauz

    All of Nicaragua is rapidly heading into what John Paul II called when referring to Nicaragua: “The dark night of the 80’s” and that my dear is Mr. Ortega natural habitat, they belong in the caves and they long for them. Problem is they want to take us all along, we need to stop him soon or else…

  • http://www.polylabel.com Fred Cressman

    To put into prospective here is an online posting from person in USA.

    But in one year our power company has had 4 rate hikes. The one last month was 13%. The others were 11%, 8% and 10%.

    I just got my electric bill and you know how it shows the bars related to the previous year?

    I used almost 1/4 LESS electricity this past month and my bill is over $100 more.

    These are the facts:

    1. I am single. I keep my therm at 83 when I’m not here and 78 when I am (not exactly comfortable).

    2. I keep all computers, printers, tv’s, etc. turned OFF when I’m not using them.

    3. I wash two loads of clothes a week (at most)

    4. Since I live by myself I don’t cook except for maybe twice a month.

    5. In each of my overhead lights I have 2 bulbs instead of the 3 allotted. And they’re 60 watt instead of 100.

    6. I run the dishwasher (mainly glassware) once every two weeks.

    This bill was $383 for a 1500 sq ft house. When Cap and trade kicks in I have no idea what I’ll do.

    Also of interest from Miami
    I worked for the electric company for 32 years. When your meter reader comes to read your meter, You Will Be Caught! Just for information, when your electric usage shows a change, the computer kicks it out and they watch your usage and they will send out a meter man to check your meter. Then YOU WILL BE CAUGHT. We had a 100% conviction rate of meter tampering. Just the fact that you broke the seal on your meter, the meter reader is supposed to catch that too. Here’s what happened to electric thieves here, some were prosecuted, some were given fines, some we just given pro-rated bills and had to pay for a new meter (NOT CHEAP) and labor costs involved in catching you, some had their electric service cut off, some had to put up cash to cover 6 months electric costs just to get their service turned back on. I remember a bakery that got caught. The owner paid someone to do the bakery, his home, some of his relatives homes, and some of his neighbors. They caught two months after he did it, they knew who exactly tampered with the meter and when they were tampered with. He denied any involvement and ended up with jail time.

    I’m not saying Union Feneso is on the up and up but they do face a lot of electricity theft and obviously looking for ways to make up the difference. Sounds like some honest people getting swept up in the process.

  • Gerd Schnepel

    I think one chance could be, suit them in Spain. And try to get Spanish media interested, newspaper, radio, TV.

  • Danielle Cameron

    Thankyou for printing this article. I have forwarded it to my brother on Big Corn Island. He is an Australian builder trying to build a small self sufficient eco backpackers called Los Escapados. He and his partner have been ripped off for the last year at nearly every possible turn. They love Nicaragua but are battling contant corruption. They are renting a property while building and have been threatened regarding the electricity supply to the property. They do not own the property but have been told they may have to go to court because the owner of the property has an illegally hooked up electrical line. Its at the point were he is getting close to packing up and returning to Australia. If Nicaragua want foriegn investers to help provide jobs and put back into the community they are definitely going the wrong way about it.

  • Fred Cressman

    Setting up a business or even renovating or constructing a building and all the red tape involved isn’t exactly easy in Australia or N. America. Building permits, electric permits, legal work and inspections would cost many times what it does in Nicaragua and take just as long. Oh and not a chance of slipping somebody $50 to look the other way either.

    Let’s limit discussion to the specific issue of how the Electrical Distribution company can get away with enforcing an ‘estimate’ of usage. Maybe someone can read the relevant law and translate for those of us with limited Spanish? My suspicion is they are trying to say the meter was tampered with and the ‘review board’ agreed with them. Tough proving different when passed up opportunity to review the meter that say was tampered with. Mind you a few months of the new meter reading could be used to substantiate fact previous meter was actually correct in any appeal.

  • http://no Capt. Caveman

    I have been living on solar panels for the past 4 years in my private house on Ometepe. With all the normal first world house accessories minus A/C. Cross ventilation and passive cooling techniques make it a very enjoyable living environment. As long as the solar design has been done properly It supplies me with all the juice I need. And one important factor to consider is that if you calculate it over a time period of 20 years then the price per Kwh is cheaper then Grid connection. On top of that all the headaches dealing with U. Fenosa is solved = Pay your bill or no power!
    Yes peeps, the initial investment can be steep but in the long term it is cost effective. I am not even talking about the ecological and psychological benefits.

    • No Basura

      Been trying to find a “reputable” solar company in the Leon area. Solar and wind are the only thing that can solve Union Fensoa’s underhanded dealings with our energy issues. A year ago my usage cost was .045 per KWH, now it is .078 per KWH, AND the rates are going UP. We’ve been “Bopped” with exhorbant meter readings, replacement meters with new “bogus” readings, bills from a previous owner of over 80,000 C’s we were made to pay if we wanted power, etc.. We even pay nearly 1800 Cordobas +-$80 US per month for the ONE street light in front of our property, and sometimes for weeks it doesn’t even work.
      We have had “them” come over and go through our property and add pages and pages of items we “have”, and have back charged us for their assumed usage. We had 4 air conditioners that are NOT even hooked up and we were charged for them. We had a higher bill in October when nobody was here due to low season AND the hurricane that affected us (killed 40 or so in N. Nicaragua and flooded much of N. Nicaragua). We had no customers, waves were into the restaurant, winds daily in the 30-40 mph/kph range, etc. Bad, Bad, Bad month but UF said we used more electricity none the less and “cut” us off until we paid the extra 12,000.

      If anyone knows of a GOOD knowledgeable solar/wind company, or even where solar cells/panels are sold let me know, I’ll even do it myself if I have to, it is rather ridiculous. We have wind farms, hydro-electric, geo-thermal all coming on line or have already come on line and the rates keep going up “because” of the cost of OIL. We import less and are almost paying double.!
      Alba is “loaning” much of all these increases we have been getting. From a “gift” to a loan, it is “debt” being added to our books, it is not “free”, and the millions of subsidized payments will some day come due. What then? We pay more and will still OWE more, pretty slick insider stuff going on I’d say.

      • KZ

        Try Solindra (?sp), Nevada Solar, or any of the US Govt. backed ‘eco’ firms!

      • nicacook

        Basura…we are going with ECAMI,S.A., (Altos de Santo domingo, O.E. 200 mts. al oests, Managua) out of Managua. Our power bill jumped from about $100 or so a month to over $ 600, after the installation of a new metrer. We fought, pretty sure we are going to lose… A few people near where we will have used them for solar hot water and are very pleased. For about $5000. they will convert everything but our pool pump, well, and AC. We should recover the funds in less than a year. We are dealing with Jairo Velasquez 8887 5061. We are hoping to move ahead within the next 2 weeks. If you wish to contact me to find out then, how it went, feel free…
        they are: http://www.ecamisa.com or email: ecami@ibw.com.ni

        • http://playaroca.com PRD

          Thanks for the info, I’ll definitely give them a buzz. Anyone else know reputable alternative energy companies, add them to a list and I’ll promote them all. 1st world thinking has to overcome 3rd world approaches if networking works.

  • car

    armed revolt is what is needed in these cases. an individual or even a group of people stand NO CHANCE against this type of corruption. maybe, just maybe, with a little bloodshed some of the UF/government thieves will think twice. clearly NOTHING else works in this place…

  • current diversion

    Well car I think an armed revolt is a bit extreme. I was in a similar situation, suffered the same frustrations and felt helpless. Until I was offerd a deal from the same Fenosa employess. Yes sir for a small fee they “hooked me up”. They even come by to maintain my connection, of course I give them coffee, fresco and 50 cords or so. They even came and temporarily unhooked my extra service (as they call it) when a new pole and transformer was instaled next to my house. Soon after they were back to reinstall me, now thats service. Im not confortable with this idea of stealing electricity and I dont recomend this to you all. Would never even consider doing this in the states but it sure makes me feel warm and fuzzy that Im screwing the power company and government.
    Note to Fred Cressman, I also worked for the same power company. Where do you think I got the word “current diversion”.

  • http://playaroca.com No Basura

    Nicaragua now owns another 16% of UF. Why doesn’t that money go to pay off debt to ALBA or keep rates lower. Why does Ortega want more “profit” when the people paying for that profit are in debt as is? Sounds like a double edged sword, or someone’s double dipping.

  • Ana Anonymous

    Every December Union Fenosa slips us a shut off for nonpayment notice. Their bill is always paid on time and of course we save the receipt, so all they end up stealing is the time and energy to go stand in line, show the receipt, argue with the bonehead behind the counter and get the notice rescinded. Every December.

    They also jack up the usage every December and when called to deny any different usage, they ask Don’t you have Christmas lights up? (no); How many airconditioners do you have? (none) Don’t you have new appliances? (no); Etc. etc. (no, nothing has changed) Then they say they will review the situation and get back to us. They don’t. We call again and they say they reviewed the situation and the amplified bill stands. Every December.

    I guess it’s their way of collecting that 13th month salary.

    And the bill in is the name of a Nicaraguan.

  • MHWE

    “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
    Speak up. Complain in writing.

  • SAC

    My elderly parents living in Nicaragua were fined $15,650 dls. from Union Venenosa. They are the most corrupted eletric company I’ve ever heard of. They paid two different attornies to help them with this case and also got ripped off by these two men the amount of $2,000 dls. They actually did nothing to help my parents. My parents finally got help from a nearby person, not an attorney, this person did a great job and asked for no money at all in return. He was able to work on this case and my parents paid $4000 to Union Venenosa. Now, they had another meter installed. Of course, my parents will compensate this person for the work he did. My folks still have no idea how Union Venenosa came up with such a high electric bill. They always paid their electric bill on time and they still have proof of this. They went through so much stress and felt helpless. This is the product of Ortega’s corrupted goverment. HELP!!