Probe on Meralco ‘bill shock’ sought

Meralco

A HOUSE leader on Tuesday warned that Manila Electric Company (Meralco) may be held liable under Republic Act (RA) No. 11469, or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, should it fail to “satisfactorily address” the “bill shock” experienced by its customers amid the coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Meralco should be made to explain why it is not guilty of violating the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act following the surge in the electricity bills of its customers while the country is under a state of public health emergency and millions suffer from the economic fallout of lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19,” House Deputy Majority Leader and Bagong Henerasyon (BH) party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera pointed out.

Herrera issued the statement as she joined mounting calls for the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to look into the drastic increases in the monthly bills of Meralco customers during the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine.

As one of the authors of RA No. 11469 in Congress, Herrera noted that the law grants President Duterte the power to adopt temporary emergency measures to respond to the crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The law empowers the President to enforce measures to protect people from hoarding, profiteering, manipulating prices, or other practices affecting the supply and distribution of essential goods and services, including electricity,” Herrera stressed.

These illegal acts, she said, are punishable with imprisonment of two months or a fine of P10,000 to P1 million, or both, at the discretion of the court.

At the same time, Herrera said that Meralco should respond to claims that its May 2020 billing merely consolidated two months worth of readings conducted on March 20 and April 20, and made them both due on May 29.

If these claims are true, Herrera said Meralco violated the ERC advisories on the deferment of due dates of billings that fell during the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and allowing the payment in four equal payments.

MERALCO ASSURES CUSTOMERS OF ACCURATE METER READINGS

Meralco spokesperson Joe Zaldarriaga clarified matters on recent reports of bill shock, explaining that “as part of the ECQ period, some March and all April bills were estimated based on the past 3 months’ average daily consumption, following the Distribution Services and Open Access Rules (DSOAR) issued by the ERC.”

Meralco stated “the three months that were used as basis- December 2019, January 2020 and February 2020, were considered ‘low consumption’ months as these were significantly cooler months compared to the summer months of March, April and May.”

Zaldarriaga pointed out that “aside from these, the following factors may have affected customers’ May bill, including increased consumption during ECQ, as everyone is at home. So, appliances are usually switched on most of the time throughout the day, especially appliances like fans and Airconditioners. Airconditioners, which most households would use six to eight hours per day before ECQ, could be used for 12 to 24 hours per day during the ECQ.

Also, Meralco said temperatures are currently at a record high, leading to higher use of cooling devices.

Meralco explained “the May bill is a result of the actual kWh Consumption from the current meter reading, with adjustments already reflected from the previous estimated consumption. This total, which is already based on the true and actual readings, is what customers actually see in the May bill. That is why you may notice a rise in the total amount due. But Meralco reassures customers that our meter reading activities continue to be accurate, and transparent. For any concerns or questions regarding your meter reading or your bills, customers can always call the Meralco hotline 16211 or visit the company’s social media accounts, and we will be more than happy to assist.”

Zaldarriaga concluded by saying “of course, it is important to note that to ease customers’ burden of having bills pile up, unpaid bills with due date from March 1 to May 15, 2020 (bill date from Feb 21 to May 6) will be converted to 4 equal monthly installments. Meralco promises to provide all the possible options for the utmost convenience of the consumer, bringing back a sense of normalcy and security in this time of uncertainty and turmoil, with the pandemic still affecting us all.”

ERC SHOULd INVESTIGATE MERALCO POWER SURGE

House Deputy Minority leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate and Bayan Muna chairman Neri Colmenares today asked the ERC to investigate Meralco for the surge in electricity bills despite the Inter-Agency Task Force in Managing Emeging Infectious Diseases  (IATF ) assurances that there is an overcapacity of supply.

“The recent Meralco justification that the surge in electricity bills of consumers is a result of higher consumption, is questionable especially since Pres. Duterte reported a downward trend in demand during the lockdown period," said Zarate.

"According to Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s 6th Report dated May 4, 2020, “excess capacity over peak demands have been registered with Luzon only using 3,341 [29%] megawatts, Visayas only 858 MW  [33%] and Mindanao 878 MW [35%].  In fact, in the latest report of Pres. Duterte on May 11, he  reported that “major island grids exhibited excess capacity over peak demand with Luzon at 23% [2683 MW], Visayas 28% [718 MW] and Mindanao at 30% [30%]. So how can consumption increase when the demand is going down from as we enter the summer period?” Asked the Davao-based congressman.

“In fact, Meralco rates should not increase because it has claimed “force majeure” among its supply contracts, meaning it will no longer pay its contract demand to its suppliers due to the COVID crisis.  The ERC must investigate the complaint of  surge in electricity bills since the government is empowered under Sec. 4 [i] and [u] of the Bayanihan law to regulate the supply power, fuel, energy and water and protect the people from profiteering, cartels, monopolies and other pernicious practices," said the progressive solon.

"We have long demanded that Meralco should in fact condone electricity charges during the lock down to help our burdened consumers and we hope that Meralco would heed our call," said Zarate.

Meanwhile, Colmenares said that "aside from the ERC, Congress should also look into this new power rate hike and not be side tracked by Meralco's plan to file a case against a consumer who claimed that he received a P1.7M electric bill,"

“It seems that the Duterte administration's penchant for attacking online critics is contagious and Meralco has caughy the disease as well," said the progressive leader.

“As it is though Meralco is so confident of its clout that it seems that a bill should be filed for the dismantling of monopolies and prohibiting cross ownership between distribution utilities and power generation companies (gencos),” he pointed out.

“Meralco’s skyrocketing rates provide consumers and lawmakers alike painful proof that the law of supply and demand does not work when only one company – a monopoly like Meralco -- controls the supply of a product or service,” he said.

Colmenares continued: “We also cannot expect Meralco to pick the least cost of electricity from among genco suppliers when Meralco also owns its own gencos.

“In choosing its supplier, Meralco is not prohibited from looking for ways to favor its own generation company where it has a cross ownership. This way, Meralco rakes windfall profits as a generation company owner and as a distribution utility,” said Colmenares.

“This is not an idle observation. Just look at the way  Meralco has been charged with twisting the terms of reference for the next round of  bidding for its big power supply agreements, to favor its own Genco,” he added

“That’s why it is important that we must review the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) and file new laws repealing Epira provisions that allow cross ownership between distribution utilities and gencos at the minimum or repealing EPIRA all together," ended Colmenares.