Gettings the facts straight
HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes (The Philippine Star) - May 30, 2020 - 12:00am

Nobody can argue against the fact that adequate, reliable and affordable electricity supply is the lifeblood of our modern society.

Electricity and economic growth go hand in hand. Factories and other businesses are run by electricity. Almost everything in our homes run on electric power. When there are power outages, everything is on a standstill. Electricity has becomes so indispensable to our daily lives.

So we understand where some customers were coming from when during the quarantine period, many areas in the country, especially in Metro Manila, suffered from brownouts and bill shock after finding out that their latest billing was much more than they were expecting.

In an article for Rappler for instance, lawyer Tony La Viña accused Meralco of failing to provide reliable service to its customers, of engaging in a pattern of overcharging and then prolonging the return of refundable amounts to customers.

And then there’s the Power for People Coalition which told Congress that Meralco could have used other methods of averaging electricity consumption during the quarantine period that would better capture actual usage and are more favorable to customers.

But in fairness to Meralco, its men and women worked round the clock throughout the entire lockdown period. And even during Typhoon Ambo, Meralco was there to restore power to affected areas within its franchise area.

And then of course, just like other major companies in the country, Meralco did its part to help the fight against COVID-19 by energizing the Philippine Arena, World Trade Center, PICC and Rizal Stadium which were converted into major health and quarantine centers.

Meralco vice president and corporate business group head Victor Genuino, meanwhile, has assured Congress that consumers who allegedly were billed triple the average amount of their monthly consumption could avail themselves of refund if their billings are found to be excessive or may opt for credit in the next billing cycle.

Genuino acknowledged that the so-called bill shock could have come from meter readings that have accumulated since March 15 when the ECQ was imposed. Meralco explained that the March and April bills were estimated based on the past three months’ average daily consumption, following the Distribution Services and Open Access Rules (DSOAR) issued by the Energy Regulatory Commission.

Both the ERC and Meralco have also announced that electricity bills for March, April and May can already be paid in installments starting June to give time and space for consumers to prepare and manage their budgets as the lockdown nears its end. Meralco also assured customers that there will be no disconnections during the lockdown period.

What the critics failed to see is the fact that the averaging system used by Meralco was based on the advisory, rules and guidelines set by the ERC. In fact, Meralco announced early on that this was the system that was going to be used but at that time, nobody questioned it. It was only after the bills arrived that the complains started pouring in.

Since what was used was the average of the cooler months of December, January and February during which energy consumption is lower, then the average will definitely be lower than actual consumption during the summer months of March and April.

In the same hearing, Genuino said that had the smart meter technology been in place, then this innovation could have helped avoid the bill shock. Meralco said that the thrust is really to fast-track the use of smart meters to avoid problems like estimated meter reading.

Meanwhile, in the same article, La Vina brought up the issue on the P47 peso convenience fee for Meralco online payments, which is of course already water under the bridge since Meralco said that it will refund P47 to those who have already paid during the lockdown period through the platform.

But it was when he accused Meralco of entering into “sweetheart deals” as he referred to seven coal power supply agreements where La Vina went completely off tangent.

Meralco explained that it went through all the proper, legal and prescribed process in terms of these seven PSAs, following all the rules and guidelines by ERC and Department of Energy. But then again, these are all moot and academic since a competitive selection process (CSP) is now required in the procurement of power supply by distribution utilities like Meralco for their captive markets. And ever since this CSP was mandated, a number of successful PSAs have been signed and are expected to result in cheaper power for consumers.

The company serves almost seven million customers and is working for 100 percent energization in its franchise area. It has started to electrify islands within its franchise area using microgrids powered by solar and battery systems with bigger and more robust systems lined up.

Earlier, Meralco president Ray Espinosa said that he wants the company to build around 1,000 megawatts of renewable power over five to seven years as their way of helping the environment.

Late last year, Meralco’s power generation arm Meralco PowerGen Corp. also revealed that it is investing P424 million in MGen Renewable Energy Inc. (MGreen) which the latter will use in various solar projects under development with total capacity of 210 megawatts and combined project cost of P10 billion. MGreen was established to serve as platform for the strategic push to develop renewable energy projects, primarily solar, wind and run-of-river hydro.

Meanwhile, Meralco wholly owned subsidiary MSpectrum is offering solar panel solutions as well as net metering for residential and corporate partners. Earlier, Spectrum said it is doubling its installed solar power capacity this year to reach 40 megawatts as more residential customers turn to solar rooftop systems to power their homes.

For the 12th consecutive year, Meralco has also managed to outperform the prescribed regulatory system loss cap and has achieved the lowest levels in the country. In 2019, Meralco’s system loss rate dropped to an all-time low of 5.54 percent, or well below the current system loss standard of 7.25 percent, translating to cumulative savings to customers of P44.8 billion or an average savings of 11 centavos per kWh since 2008. It has also enabled Meralco to return P9 billion worth of pilferage recoveries to customers, something that the company’s detractors have conveniently failed to acknowledge.

Meralco’s 8.37 Customer Satisfaction Index or CSI also matches its all-time high in 2017.

Surely, Meralco has its faults, just like other companies offering services to the public. And yes, it may have failed to properly anticipate public reaction to some of its actions, including the past three months averaging scheme. The public outcry could have been better managed had Meralco explained to the public before the billings arrived that a huge jump may be reflected because the basis for the averaging was the cold months of December-February. And yes, there were power outages. But we also suffered from interrupted services from other service providers. And yes, as paying customers, it is our right to point out and suggest ways to improve the delivery of services but constructively instead of twisting facts to get the attention we want.

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