"This shows how a faulty policy can do damage to a wide spectrum of stakeholders."
I received my electricity bill a few weeks ago. It reflected my consumption since the last meter reading before the lockdowns took effect. Though I have been closely monitoring this electric bill shock issue being a convenor of CitizenWatch Philippines, I still felt a slight heart palpitation when my eyes instinctively zeroed in on the total bill. After a couple of deep breaths and some quick arithmetic to compute our average consumption in the lockdown months, I realized that the billing did reflect the round the clock consumption of our family while staying home for more than three months.
News and social media reports of consumers complaining that they find their billing too high because by their “estimates,” their electricity consumption was not that much. I remember news reports featuring the case of a businessman who complained that his bill reflected substantial kilowatt hours (kWh) of consumption during the lockdown months when his whole operations were shut down. The public clamor prompted several investigations in both Houses of Congress where Meralco and government regulators were summoned to explain what happened.
So here is my quick digest of what happened.
When the lockdowns took effect, we were all confined to our domiciles. Travel restrictions stopped everything causing widespread disruptions and one of them was the suspension of meter reading activities of Meralco, and all Distribution Utilities (DUs) and Electricity Cooperatives (ECs) in lockdown areas. As a force majeure measure the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) issued an advisory requiring the DUs and ECs to compute an “estimate bill” based on an average of the three (3) months of actual kWh consumption during the pre-lockdown months of November 2019 to February 2020. Following this directive, the billings in May 2020 reflected the estimated March and April estimate consumption, shocking consumers amidst the height on lockdown anxieties.
If you think about it, if with the necessary precautions, the meter reading activities were allowed during the lockdown, all this billing confusion would not have happened. The minute or two it takes to read the electricity meters outside our homes and buildings poses no health risk to the occupants inside.
The whole “estimated billing” procedure of the ERC, for lack of details and communication, caused confusion in the implementation of the DUs and ECs and sparked the ire of millions of residential consumers. This estimated billing based on average consumption proved to be problematic because consumer consumption varies with each season. A quick look at our past electricity bills visually shows peak months of consumption which in my case are the hot summer months. In the case of the businessman who was charged with “mystery consumption” while his enterprise was shut down, the billing he got was based on the average of the previous months when his business was in full operations.
On the other hand, most residential consumers could not accept the huge jump in their billing which for most cases were way above their memory of recent payments. News reports of similar complaints are actually happening all over the country and not just in Meralco’s franchise areas.
After several venues to explain and apologize for the additional disturbance to the lockdown-stressed consumers, Meralco announced to its customers to just wait for their June billing where billing will be reflected based on actual meter reading. Meralco customers have the option to pay in six months if monthly consumption is less than 200 kWh and four months for 201 kWh monthly consumption and above. As of the last press briefing, Meralco has committed to address all clarifications in their business centers on a one-on-one basis.
The prevalence of the complaints all over the country shows how a faulty policy can do damage to a wide spectrum of stakeholders. These circumstances have sparked an unfortunate controversy for the DUs and ECs which I am sure will eventually be resolved as this highly regulated industry has enough safeguards against defrauding consumers. As the power industry must fulfill its obligation to supply stable electricity, we as consumers have an obligation to settle our accounts fair and square.
We have seen several missteps as the government continues to grapple with the pandemic and, despite the still increasing number of new Wuhan virus infections, must now slowly and cautiously get the economy going to avert complete economic ruin.
Like any other issue there will be a lot of noise and political opportunists who will take advantage of a crisis. We must try to filter out the negative rhetoric and focus on solutions as we anticipate more problems during this planetary crisis.