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  • By : Delmar O. CariƱo
  • Jun 15, 2020

Bill Shock

The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) obviously sought to assuage the rage of electricity consumers when it directed the Manila Electric Company (Meralco) to explain the sudden surge of power bills during the lockdown period when the national government ordered an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

To be fair though, Meralco had painstakingly exerted effort to explain the spike even before the ERC issued the order. Needed was a good grasp of the rationale behind the bill increases although it is understandable why consumers were up in arms at first sight.

The country's electric cooperatives are in the same boat. Their consumers, or to be more politically correct -- member consumer owners (CWO) -- have also spared no space in airing their grievance on why they are made to pay more compared to what they have paid before the lockdown. In BENECO, the marching order is to be ready with the level of conversation needed to cool down the gripes of irate MCOs.

All the ruckus came about when the country's largest utility and we, the electric cooperatives, used estimates in determining the consumption from March 16, 2020 to April 30, 2020, the height of the lockdown. Bills issued during this period were marked as "estimate" pursuant to the Distribution Services and Open Access Rules (DSOAR) of the ERC. The scheme is used when distribution utilities are unable to conduct actual meter reading due to force majeure or other similar circumstances. The estimate was based on the average of the actual consumption of the consumer in the last three months before the lockdown Dec., Jan and February.

That did not sit well with the consumers. The word estimate was taken as a guess of numbers and the scheme was assailed for accuracy. The deluge of complaints didn't stop when the bills in May or June following the resumption of actual field work for meter readers, showed more rather than less to pay.

We, the ECs, also deserve due process. And with the indulgence of MCOs, please bear and hear us.

(1)The actual reading of meters in May and June after the lockdown now showed the actual consumption. Either the consumption increased or decreased compared to the bill in February when the last actual meter reading activity was completed.

(2)Most likely, the bill increased. This is because the actual meter reading that immediately followed the lifting of the lockdown will now absorb the difference of the actual reading less the estimated bill for March and April. This is why there were two bills issued by BENECO in May one for the estimated bill and the other for the bill based on what was actually read. What is to be paid, however, is the latest bill and not the estimated bill anymore. In case the consumer paid the estimated bill already, the succeeding bills will be adjusted accordingly. If the bill based an actual reading is lower than the estimate, the consumer need not pay anything since the new bill already captured the adjustment. If the actual bill is higher than the estimate, then the consumer will only shoulder the difference.

(3)The likely increase could be attributed to the fact that the consumers stayed at home during the lockdown. Naturally, the use of electricity will be more frequent what with those work from home arrangements, unlimited movies to watch at Netflix and kids being glued to their laptops and desktop for games to fight boredom. Before. The TV habit is to whet the appetite for news early in the evening after we retire from work. During the pandemic, expect the device to have been opened from morning till night.

(4)The timing of the lockdown is also one thing to consider. The estimated bills from Dec. to Feb. will not be surprisingly lower compared to the use of power for the months of March to May. For sure, air conditioners and other equipment were used to the hilt to tide over the heat during summer.

(5)The reading may have resumed in April and May but admittedly, not all the meters were read on field due to the decision of management to adopt a gradual deployment of meter readers. There were also areas Mayor Benjamin Magalong ordered to be locked down when positive Covid 19 cases emerged. The meter reading in these areas had to be stopped. As a result, not all meters were read on their scheduled reading date. There were meters read beyond thirty days which meant the bill would be higher compared to when they were read on a 30 day cycle. There were meters that were read on a shorter span of days which would naturally bring out a reduced power bill but which would eventually increase in the succeeding bill since the consumption for the unread days will be incorporated in the new bill.

We wish to assure our MCOs though that there's no hocus pocus in the way we computed the electric bills during these difficult times. The rants against the so called bill shock are welcome but we wish to pacify their fears that the meters were not read accurately.

All consumers have their individual ledgers safely tucked in our computer systems. They can always pay us a visit at South Drive, Baguio City to access such records and provide our consumer welfare and call center officers the opportunity to further explain.

Sadly, we learned that there are forces who wish to inject degrees of suspicion to the way the electric cooperative computed the ECQ power bills. We got word that they are rallying consumers who are complaining about the bill shock to join their ranks and make a statement to raise the issue to the level of an anomaly.

Well, that sucks.