The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) is set to issue a directive to allow “lifeliners” in areas under the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) to extend payments for their electric bills over six months, ERC chair Agnes Devanadera told senators on Thursday.

Speaking at a Senate hearing, Devanadera said there was little difference between areas under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and those under the modified version.

She said lifeliners are customers who consume 200 kilowatt hours of electricity monthly.Devanadera noted that under both ECQ and MECQ, public transportation was disallowed and many daily wage earners still could not return to work.

The ERC earlier allowed the staggered payment of their electric bills that had fallen due during the ECQ. The bills from Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) could now be paid in four monthly installments.

Devanadera said that the new ERC directive, which she would issue “soon,” would cover areas under MECQ and would help the informal sector.

The new directive will continue to allow the four-month staggered payment and will provide additional concessions to targeted beneficiaries, or those with a monthly consumption of 200 kwh, she said.

“Because we think these are those who have no aircon and they only have basic electrical equipment or those are all they have. And so we are extending for this group, we can call them actually the lifeliners now, we are extending the payment for six months,” she said.

Tolentino’s bill

Devanadera commended a proposed law that will institutionalize an installment payment scheme for basic utility bills during a state of calamity. A measure like this is needed now, she said.

Under the Senate bill filed by Sen. Francis Tolentino, there will be a moratorium on the payment of utility bills—electricity, telephone and water—for the duration of the state of calamity.

The bills during this period could be paid in up to three equal monthly installments, without interest.

Other emergencies

Tolentino said the measure would not lead to income loss for utility companies as it was not pushing for nonpayment or abandonment of the charges. The money due to the companies will only be delayed, he said.

Undersecretary Ruth Castelo said the Department of Trade and Industry supported the measure and suggested expanding the payment moratorium to other emergencies such as rebellion, martial law, or state of war.

These also are times when consumers would be unable to settle their bills, she said.

Castelo added that internet and cable services could be included in the utilities covered by the deferred payment scheme.

Lawrence Fernandez, Meralco vice president and head of utility economics, said the company supported the objective of the bill to provide relief to consumers, but power distribution companies would need help as well.

Moratorium for utilities

Fernandez said a moratorium on payments by customers would need to be matched by a moratorium on the payment by distribution utilities of the charges it collected and remitted to other entities.

He said utilities should also be protected from penalties or fees and termination of generation supply or disconnection from the transmission grid arising from the nonpayment during the moratorium.

Those who can pay should still be allowed to pay during the state of calamity as resources would be needed to continue to provide electric service, he said.

The Senate could also consider imposing the moratorium on targeted beneficiaries, he added.

At the House of Representatives, a network of consumer advocates urged lawmakers to investigate Meralco’s “exorbitant fees” during the ECQ.

In a statement, Samahan at Ugnayan ng mga Konsyumer para sa Ikauunlad ng Bayan (Suki) Network said Meralco’s charges “doubled, tripled, even quadrupled during the May billing.”

It called on the House to compel the company “to drop all unnecessary charges on consumers especially at this trying time.”

The average-billing scheme implemented when electric meters could not be read due to restrictions on the movement of people during ECQ gave rise to “unjustifiable bills” after two months of lockdown, the group said.

‘Convenience fee’

Meralco, under pressure from mounting complaints, gave one concession—refunding the P47 “convenience fee” to customers who paid their bills using the Meralco Online payment platform.

Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi earlier told the power distributor to explain the P47 fee every time customers paid their bills through Meralco Online, which is accessible via a web browser or a mobile app.

In a letter to Cusi on May 20, Meralco president Ray Espinosa explained that the transaction fee goes to a third-party service provider, which charges the use of the payment portal.

He said Meralco, instead of its customers, would pay the P47 fee for transactions made from March 16 to May 15.

‘Refund’

“I sincerely apologize for this lapse,” Espinosa said. “Meralco will shoulder the convenience fee charged during the aforesaid ECQ period and refund to the customers the fees they paid during this period.”

The Suki Network includes the Alliance for Consumer Protection, Bantay Bigas, Bantay Konsyumer, Kuryente at Kalsada, Bayan Muna, Ecuvoice Women, Gabriela, Green Action Network PH, Matuwid na Singil sa Kuryente, No to Jeepney Phaseout Coalition, People Opposed to Warrantless Electricity Rates, Riles, Train Riders Network, TXTPower, United Filipino Consumers and Commuters and Water for the People Network. —WITH A REPORT FROM RONNEL W. DOMINGO


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