By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor
Following a tidal wave of complaints from Metro Manila consumers, the Manila Electric Company (Meralco) was meted a PHP19 million (US$380,000) penalty by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) last week.
The power distribution company was also ordered to provide PHP200 million (US$4 million) in discounts to lifeline customers.
To recall, more than 47,000 consumers raised a howl at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown when they received Meralco bills much larger than what they had been charged monthly.
Meralco said back then that the bills were based on “average consumption” in the past several months, instead of on actual consumption based on meter readings.
Meralco said its meter readers could not be deployed at the height of the strict lockdown rules imposed by the government.
Meralco, however, did not immediately accept the penalty, saying that they had not yet received the order and that they would consult with their lawyers to determine if they would contest the penalties or not.
According to the ERC, the power distributor had violated its advisories during the quarantine period from March to July by failing to clearly indicate that the bills were based on estimates. Also, the bills sent to consumers did not comply with the mandated installment payment arrangement set by the ERC.
Jose Ronald Valles, Meralco’s head of regulatory management, said, “We will study the Order and we will file the appropriate pleading after consultation with our lawyers.”
For decades, Meralco had been one of the flagship companies of the Lopez Group of Companies but the Lopez family sold the company to the Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP) Group of companies a few years ago.
The company was at the receiving end of the complaints from nearly all sectors, who could not understand the confusing and hard to understand bills sent out during the lockdown.
Last July, the growing number of complaints from consumers resulted in lawmakers threatening to conduct public hearings on the issue.
Agnes Devanadera, ERC chairperson and CEO, said there was neglect on the part of Meralco following its failure to comply with ERC advisories.
Of the “bill shock,” Devanadera said, “Meralco’s neglect to provide accurate and timely information especially during this time of pandemic has created chaos and confusion to most of the electricity-consuming public.”
She added that the ERC had issued the relevant advisories “with the intention of alleviating the financial burden of the electricity consumers who were adversely affected” by the quarantine measures implemented by the government.
The “serious neglect” be Meralco resulted in a “multitude of complaints” filed by consumers with the ERC, she said.
The ERC head said the under the circumstances, prudence dictated that Meralco should always account the normal behavior of consumers when presenting information affecting them.
The ERC said that based on its evaluation, Meralco had incurred no less than 190 days of violation based on billing statements from consumer complaints filed with its Consumer Affairs Division; billing statements from its employees; billing statements from the Office of Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian; and billing statements sent to the Commission by the National Association of Electricity Consumers for Reforms, Inc.
Based on the ERC’s guidelines, a basic penalty of PHP100,000 (US$2,000) shall be imposed for each violation of the provisions of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act. The ERC multiplied this by the number of infractions committed by Meralco.
The ERC instructed Meralco to submit a compliance report within 15 days after its implementation of the Commission’s directives.
Consumer complaints were mostly on their bills which were anywhere from double, triple or even quadruple what they were normally paying, although in extreme cases, they were billed up to 10 times what they had been paying previously.