THE CORPORATE regulator has fined Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) P19 million for ignoring advisories on billing customers during the lockdown.
The utility giant failed to inform clients that their bills for March to May had been estimated, while failing to comply with an order to allow them to pay in installments, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) said in a statement on Thursday.
“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,” the regulator said.
“This serious neglect by Meralco resulted in a multitude of complaints filed by its consumers to this commission,” ERC Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Agnes VST Devanadera said.
The regulator said it had evaluated billing statements submitted by complainants, its own employees, the office of Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian and consumer group National Association of Electricity Consumers for Reforms.
It charged the utility P100,000 for every continuing violation that started on May 5, when the ERC first issued its advisory on lockdown billings, to July 9, when Meralco issued personalized letters to consumers explaining their bills.
The company will study the order and file an appropriate pleading after consulting its lawyers, said Meralco’s Regulatory Management Head Jose Ronald V. Valles in a statement. It said it had not received the ERC ruling dated Aug. 20.
Clean power advocacy group Power for People Coalition welcomed the regulator’s decision, but said the fine was unlikely to hurt Meralco financially.
“We prefer that ERC instead look into the issue of consumer money that Meralco is holding on to, as these refunds amount to billions and can have a direct positive impact on the cash flow of residential customers, more than any fine ever could,” it said.
Ms. Devanadera said distribution utilities should take the commission’s advisories “very seriously.”
“Our advisories were issued to aid electricity consumers in light of the ongoing pandemic,” she said. “It was supposed to provide a respite from the various financial woes of consumers.”
A number of consumers reported a spike in their May electricity bills, which later turned out to be just estimates. The government had allowed such estimates based on consumers’ power usage three months before the lockdown.
This prompted ERC to order electricity distributors to conduct physical meter readings and charge consumers for actual consumption during the quarantine months.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte locked down the entire Luzon island in mid-March to contain a coronavirus pandemic. People should stay home except to buy food and other basic goods, he said.
The lockdown on the island was extended twice and thrice for Metro Manila. The lockdown in most areas has since been relaxed.
Meanwhile, the ERC ordered Meralco to cover the distribution, supply and metering charges of its lifeline customers — those that consume less than 100 kilowatt-hours — at the next billing cycle. The charge accounts for about a fifth of the utility’s total charges.
The estimated P200 million worth of discount is a form of temporary economic relief for more than two million poor consumers. The company must file a compliance report to the ERC.
Meralco President and Chief Executive Officer Ray C. Espinosa told congressmen at a hearing on Wednesday that the company would shoulder P101 million in distribution charges on its lifeline customers.
Meralco’s controlling stakeholder, Beacon Electric Asset Holdings, Inc., is partly owned by PLDT Inc. Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has interest in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls. — Adam J. Ang