This file photo shows Meralco workers.
The STAR/File

Regulators to prohibit cutting unpaid power lines until yearend

Ian Nicolas Cigaral (Philstar.com) - October 13, 2020 - 1:42pm

MANILA, Philippines — Power distributors will be asked to extend a moratorium on disconnecting power lines of unpaid customers until yearend as reprieve to consumers battered by the pandemic.

An advisory is currently being drafted by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to instruct electric firms to ease their disconnection policies until December 31, Agnes Devanadera, chairperson, said in a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

Sought for comment, the Manila Electric Co., the country’s largest power distributor, said it is prepared to follow any ERC order to that effect. Meralco currently gives its unpaid clients until October 31 to settle past dues without the risk of getting disconnected.

“We will await ERC guidelines or advisory regarding the Bayanihan Act and extension and we will comply,” Joe Zaldarriaga, head of corporate communications, said in a Viber message when sought for comment.

Under Republic Act 11494 or the Bayanihan to Recover As One Act, electric firms are mandated to offer a fresh 30-day grace period to residential customers in settling their bills, after which a staggered payment option of not less than 3 months should be made available to consumers to pay up their outstanding balance. 

While not directly stipulating a moratorium on disconnection notices, Devanadera said the provision of the so-called Bayanihan II is sufficient as legal basis to restrict energy providers from cutting down power lines. 

“We have always advocated for the relaxation of disconnection policies of our distribution utilities,” she said.

As millions suffered joblessness, bills and dues were ordered deferred by government to assist households with tight cash flow because of the pandemic. In the existing scheme by Meralco following the first Bayanihan Act that expired June, customers have until month’s end to settle bills that accumulated from March to June when most of the archipelago was in lockdown.

At the time, meter reading was likewise suspended, resulting into large discrepancies between actual consumption and amounts stipulated in monthly bills. The resulting “bill shock” prompted ERC to fine Meralco P19 million and order a one-month electric waiver to lifeline customers consuming 100 kilowatt per hour this month.

In response, Meralco paid up the penalty and implemented the waiver even while appealing the latter before ERC. If Meralco’s appeal is granted, discounted October bills may be recouped in the future.

During Tuesday’s budget hearing of the energy department and attached agencies, Senator Risa Hontiveros called on ERC to follow through on its plan to order a postponement of power disconnection. “It’s great hearing from ERC officials themselves that consumers will not face power disconnections this Christmas,” she said in Filipino.

At the same time however, Devanadera encouraged financially-able customers, including government agencies, to pay their bills on time.

Bucking a general decline in the benchmark on Tuesday, shares in Meralco closed up 1.07% at P284 apiece.

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