The curious case of NAPOCOR debts

The deep indebtedness of NAPOCOR was one of the strongest arguments used to justify the EPIRA (Photo from Kevin Collins on flickr.com)

Continued from Part 1

Proponents of EPIRA made us believe that privatization will solve the financial woes of state-owned NAPOCOR. In fact, the deep indebtedness of NAPOCOR was one of the strongest arguments used to justify the EPIRA. If state coffers are being bled dry by the debts of NAPOCOR, then why not just sell its assets to wipe out its obligations? Obviously, the public was deceived by this simple line of reasoning.

Drain in public resources

Such argument by the then Arroyo administration sounded persuasive for some because government was facing a swelling budget deficit and debt. In 2001, the budget shortfall was P147.02 billion. Including the deficit of other government units, the consolidated public sector deficit was P174.27 billion. Meanwhile, the outstanding national government debt during the period was P2.38 trillion. NAPOCOR represented the biggest drain in public resources. Its 2001 debt of $16.39 billion or some P834.29 billion (at P50.99 per US dollar) accounted for 34.9 percent of government’s outstanding debt. With the EPIRA, the Arroyo administration promised to reverse the situation.

Fast forward to 2011. According to the PSALM Corp., the remaining debt of NAPOCOR as of 2010 is $15.82 billion. Thus, after 10 years, only $570 million have been shaved from the state power firm’s 2001 debt of $16.39 billion. At $15.82 billion or P713.64 billion (at P45.11 per US dollar), the debt of NAPOCOR comprised a still a significant 15 percent of government’s outstanding debt. Meanwhile, the budget deficit ballooned to P314.5 billion in 2010, a new high in absolute terms.

While its IPP obligations have been reduced by $1.63 billion between 2001 and 2010, NAPOCOR’s debt also increased by $1.02 billion during the same period. This implies that IPP obligations have been mainly financed by new debts. (See Chart 3)

Worse, PSALM has already shelled out $18 billion to settle the obligations of NAPOCOR from 2001 to 2010. Of the said amount, $6.7 billion went to principal amortization; $4.3 billion for interest payments; and $7 billion for obligations to independent power producers (IPPs). (See Chart 4) But if government spent $18 billion in the past 10 years, why then did the debt of NAPOCOR was reduced by a mere $570 million?

New debts

PSALM itself provided the explanation. According to it, NAPOCOR contracted new debts in the past 10 years. From 2001 to 2010, NAPOCOR accumulated new debts of $12 billion, on top of its $16.39-billion pre-EPIRA debt. Of the $12 billion, 73 percent represented operational losses while the commissioning of new IPP plants accounted for the remaining 27 percent. PSALM noted that the commissioning of new IPP plants bloated the total financial obligations of NAPOCOR to $22.35 billion by 2003.

The question now is why did officials tasked to privatize NAPOCOR have to resort to more borrowings? Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of power sector reform which is to free up government from its debilitating financial woes?

Under the EPIRA, eliminating NAPOCOR’s debts primarily involves using the proceeds from the privatization of the state power firm’s generation and transmission assets and liabilities. Apparently, this has not happened because earnings from power privatization were not enough to compensate the huge financial obligations of NAPOCOR.

According to the PSALM, government has earned $10.65 billion as of October 2010 from the sale of its generation plants, transmission assets, and IPP contracts. Of the said amount, the largest, $3.95 billion, came from the privatization of the National Transmission Corporation (TRANSCO). The sale of generating plants, on the other hand, yielded $3.47 billion. Finally, the transfer of NAPOCOR’s IPP contracts to IPP Administrators (IPPAs) accounted for the remaining $3.23 billion.

Privatization debacle

However, of the $10.65 billion in total privatization proceeds, only $4.85 billion was actually collected and used to pay for NAPOCOR’s debt. PSALM reasoned that earnings from the privatization of TRANSCO and the IPP contracts will be fully collected in a number of years through a staggered collection scheme. “But in any year when maturing debts exceed privatization collections, PSALM will have no recourse but to raise funds through new loans to pay for maturing obligations,” PSALM said. This explains the $12 billion in new debts incurred by NAPOCOR in the past 10 years.

It appears that the supposed benefits of privatization in terms of addressing NAPOCOR’s financial bleeding will not be felt anytime soon. PSALM said that the debt of NAPOCOR will be significantly reduced only by 2026, with a projected residual debt of $3.78 billion. The amount is exclusively based on privatization proceeds as of 2010 and maturing financial obligations. Depending on future privatization proceeds and earnings from the universal charge, PSALM claimed that it may even liquidate the $3.78 billion before its corporate life ends in 2026.

But it doesn’t mean that NAPOCOR will be debt-free by the time PSALM expires 15 years from now. This will depend on how much government can earn from the privatization of its remaining assets and IPP contracts. If the experience of the past 10 years is to serve as indicator, it seems that there is nothing much to hope in EPIRA even in just mitigating the public sector’s fiscal burden. Why is this so?

NAPOCOR’s financial bleeding

Even prior to the EPIRA, there were already initial efforts by government to privatize the power industry. But even then, officials already knew that power privatization can only be successful if government could package it in the most attractive way for businesses to take notice. One factor going against efforts to privatize the power sector was the small energy market of the Philippines. Being a pre-industrial, backward economy, Philippine energy consumption is not as huge as those of other countries even compared to our neighbors in Southeast Asia.

To remedy the concern over a small market, government had to offer incentives and other benefits that will guarantee the profits of private investors. IPPs, for instance, were offered a guaranteed market that was much larger than the actual electricity consumption of the country through take-or-pay contracts, on top of other benefits. These guarantees and perks were the underlying reasons for NAPOCOR’s financial hemorrhage.

Legitimizing onerous contracts & debts

Alas, EPIRA even legitimized these burdensome and unjust contracts and debts. To entice investors, Section 32 of the law mandated the government (and ultimately, the taxpayers) to automatically assume P200 billion in financial obligations of NAPOCOR.

Section 68 of EPIRA did mandate the “thorough review” all IPP contracts by an inter-agency committee headed by the Department of Finance (DOF). It also tasked the committee to take necessary actions in cases where contracts are found to be grossly disadvantageous or onerous to the government. Implementing this provision, then President Arroyo ordered a review of 35 IPP contracts. In 2002, the DOF-led review committee said that a total of 27 contracts have financial issues. A financial issue pertained to an instance when the government agency that entered into the contract agreed to shoulder financial obligations “beyond what is necessary”.

But instead of rescinding these financially onerous IPP contracts, government opted to simply renegotiate them. PSALM claimed that the renegotiations have resulted in some $1.03 billion in savings for the government Such savings, however, were not the result of striking out the take-or-pay provisions in the contracts, which remained even after the renegotiations. The reported savings mostly came from IPPs reducing their nominated capacity, or the capacity that government agreed to pay for whether electricity is actually produced or not. The renegotiations were done not to substantially rewrite the contracts. On the contrary, discussions were carried out by PSALM officials with the IPPs within the parameters set by the contracts.

Consumers’ burden

Even worse, EPIRA mandated that all the costs resulting from these contracts be borne by the hapless consumers. Section 34 of the law states that “a universal charge to be determined, fixed, and approved by the ERC shall be imposed on all electricity end-users”. The universal charge shall be collected for, among others, the recovery of so-called stranded debt and stranded contract costs of NAPOCOR.

Section 4 of EPIRA defines stranded debts as any unpaid financial obligations of NAPOCOR which have not been liquidated by the proceeds from the sales and privatization of its assets. On the other hand, stranded contract costs refer to the excess of contracted cost of electricity under eligible contracts (i.e. those approved by the ERC as of December 2000) over the actual selling price of the contracted energy output of such contracts in the market. Stranded contract costs are basically the take-or-pay capacity payments that will not be offset by the privatization of the IPP contracts and thus will still be shouldered by NAPOCOR.

In June 2009, PSALM had filed petitions before the ERC to recover almost P470.87 billion in NAPOCOR stranded debts and almost P22.26 billion in stranded contract costs for the Luzon grid. The recovery of stranded debts translates to a rate hike of 30.49 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh) based on a recovery period of 17 years. Meanwhile, the petition to recover the stranded contract costs in five years will translate to a rate hike of 9.20 centavos per kWh. PSALM filed another set of petitions in June 2010 to recover stranded debts for 2010 (projected at almost P54.90 billion), equivalent to almost 86.77 centavos per kWh. It also proposed to recover in three years stranded contract costs for 2009 estimated at almost P26.69 billion, equivalent to 18.79 centavos per kWh.

Fortunately, the ERC dismissed these petitions last November 15, 2010. The dismissal, however, was not because they had no basis (EPIRA allows such recoveries through the universal charge) but due to PSALM’s failure to submit supporting documents and information. In fact, the ERC decision clearly stated that the dismissal was “without prejudice to the re-filing of the same after conforming to the pertinent ERC regulations”. The relief for consumers is indeed just temporary. On or before June 30 this year, PSALM is expected to file another set of petitions to recover NAPOCOR’s stranded debts and stranded contract costs. Reportedly, PSALM is filing for 12 to 15 centavos per kWh-hike in the universal charge. (To be concluded)

Also read The role of foreign lenders, investment banks, and credit rating agencies in Philippine power sector reform

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The role of foreign lenders, investment banks, and credit rating agencies in Philippine power sector reform

EPIRA was the result of intense pressure from NAPOCOR creditors led by the Asian Development Bank (Photo from finchannel.com)

Last June 8, the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) of 2001 or Republic Act (RA) 9136 marked its tenth year of implementation. A day before, utility giant Manila Electric Company (MERALCO) announced that it is again hiking its generation charge by 51 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh). The rate hike underscored how EPIRA has harmed consumers with exorbitant electricity rates, which have now become the highest in Asia. Indeed, EPIRA is considered one of the most notorious legacies of the despised Arroyo administration that was even accused of bribing Congress just to get EPIRA passed a decade ago.

But Mrs. Arroyo and her allies in the legislature are not solely to blame because EPIRA was not just a product of internal and independent policy making. Rather, it was the result of intense pressure from the creditors of the National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR) who were wary that the heavily indebted state firm will not be able to pay them back. NAPOCOR lenders, namely, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank, and the Japan Export-Import Bank (JEXIM) and Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF) withheld committed loans for NAPOCOR unless EPIRA was passed. At the same time, they promised additional lending for the privatization and deregulation of the power sector. (JEXIM and OECF merged in 1999 to form the Japan Bank for International Cooperation or JBIC.)

Credit rating agencies also put pressure on the bankrupt government to pass the EPIRA while investment banks acted as privatization consultants. These institutions represent foreign corporate interests who also pushed for the passage of EPIRA to widen their profit-making opportunities in the Philippines through the privatization and deregulation of the power industry. Therefore, these foreign banks and corporations are as accountable as the Philippine government for the mess created by EPIRA.

Pre-EPIRA intervention

In fact, the restructuring of the power industry and the role that these creditors played did not begin with Arroyo’s EPIRA in 2001. EPIRA was in reality the culmination of neoliberal power reforms long pushed by multilateral creditors. Initial efforts started in 1987 during the administration of the late President Cory Aquino with her Executive Order (EO) No. 215. This EO allowed private sector participation in the construction and operation of power plants in the country. In 1990, Congress passed RA 6957 or the BOT Law that authorized the financing, construction, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure projects by the private sector.

These policies formed part of neoliberal structural adjustment pushed by the IMF and World Bank starting in the 1980s in poor countries facing a debt crisis like the Philippines. Among the stated objectives of structural adjustment was to supposedly reduce government deficit and spending through, among others, the privatization of state assets and functions. The ADB had supported these privatization efforts in the early 1990s through loans and equity investment to independent power producers (IPPs) as well as guarantees for NAPOCOR bonds.

Compounding the fiscal woes of government was the deteriorating power situation in the early 1990s, which government responded to with more privatization. In 1993, former President Fidel Ramos was granted emergency powers to enter into negotiated contracts with IPPs for the construction of power plants through the Electric Power Crisis Act or RA 7648. Then in 1994, RA 7718 which amended RA 6957 was enacted to further promote the participation of the private sector in infrastructure development, including power generation.

However, the ADB in a 1994 study (as cited in Sharma et. al., “Electricity industry reform in the Philippines,” Energy Policy, 2004) noted that despite these efforts at privatization, the power crisis continued to worsen. It argued that there was a need for further privatization because NAPOCOR, despite ending its monopoly in generation, still retained its monopsony position. Furthermore, domestic capital was considered insufficient to meet the long-term capital requirements of the industry while legal restrictions on foreign ownership were hampering investment.

Power restructuring program

As early as 1994, the ADB, NAPOCOR, Department of Energy (DOE), and Department of Finance (DOF) had already initiated policy dialogue concerning NAPOCOR’s difficulty in funding necessary generation and transmission projects “and the need for a radical change.” By 1996, an Omnibus Power Industry Bill was filed at Congress to privatize NAPOCOR and restructure the industry. The bill did not gain ground but was later re-filed in 1998 as the ADB approved a $300-million loan to fund the Power Sector Restructuring Program (PSRP) that was co-financed by the JBIC with an additional $400 million. EPIRA was the direct product of this $700-million loan from the ADB and JBIC.

According to the ADB, the PSRP will create competitive electricity markets, restore NAPOCOR’s financial sustainability, and achieve operational improvements and increased efficiencies. The loan was meant to help finance the adjustment costs of privatization such as the take-or-pay contracts with the IPPs and excess debts upon NAPOCOR’s privatization – or what will be called as stranded debts and stranded contract costs under EPIRA. Aside from the loan, the PSRP was also accompanied by two technical assistance (TA) grants from the ADB worth $1.32 million for a study on electricity pricing and regulatory practice as well as a consumer impact assessment.

The PSRP was part of a standby arrangement in 1998 between the Philippines and ADB, World Bank, and IMF. The World Bank’s commitment to the standby arrangement was a fast disbursing loan package of $500 million while the IMF standby facility was worth $280 million. Under the standby arrangement, the Philippine government committed to implement among others further fiscal reforms, financial sector and structural reforms, and strengthening the corporate sector, which included as a critical component power sector restructuring.

Access to the PSRP was structured in a manner that ensured strict compliance to a total of 61 specific conditionalities identified by the ADB in the loan program. These conditionalities were jointly designed by the ADB, World Bank, and JBIC. The $300-million ADB loan was divided into three equal tranches with the first tranche released upon loan effectiveness and compliance to 13 conditionalities while the second tranche was targeted for release in 1999 upon compliance to an additional 8 conditionalities (including the approval of creditor banks of NAPOCOR’s restructuring and privatization plan and passage of EPIRA), while the third tranche was targeted for release in the second half of 2000 upon compliance to a further 7 conditionalities (including the promulgation of EPIRA’s implementing rules and regulations). The rest of the conditionalities were expected to be complied with during the implementation of the program.

However, the passage of EPIRA was delayed and the ADB conditionalities were not met on time. Consequently, the second and third tranches of the PSRP were withheld by the ADB until the conditionalities were implemented by the Philippine government. The second tranche was released in December 2001 and the last tranche in November 2002.

In early 1999, NAPOCOR disclosed that its creditors had warned to cut-off new loans until the privatization of the state-owned power firm was implemented. The World Bank, for instance, indicated that it will no longer support NAPOCOR until the year 2000 while the OECF had advised that no NAPOCOR project will be included in its loan packages. The ADB, meanwhile, had imposed a “very strict” condition of 8% return on rate base (RORB) – a measure of profitability – for NAPOCOR to ensure access to loans. [“No new Napocor loans (Precarious condition worries foreign lenders),” BusinessWorld, March 26, 1999] It was estimated that over $1 billion in fresh foreign loans were riding on the passage of EPIRA. [“Int’l credit groups unsure about tack on Napocor loans,” BusinessWorld, April 13, 2000]

Pro-business lobby

Aside from the foreign creditors, other imperialist institutions had also added to the pressure to privatize NAPOCOR and in some cases even pushed for specific provisions that eventually became part of EPIRA. Credit-rating agencies like Moody’s Investor Service, Inc., for example, had made the privatization of NAPOCOR a pre-requisite for a credit rating upgrade for the Philippines. [“Napocor privatization needed for Moody’s credit rating upgrade,” BusinessWorld, December 13, 1999]

US-based investment banks Credit Suisse First Boston and Arthur Andersen, meanwhile, pushed for government to retain the debts of NAPOCOR instead of passing them to generating companies to make privatization more attractive. These same investment banks advised legislators not to abrogate the onerous purchased power adjustment (PPA) because it will “damage the country’s reputation in the international financial and political arenas.” [“Transparency necessary in Napocor privatization,” BusinessWorld, August 31, 2000]

Credit Suisse, which government tapped to develop a privatization plan for NAPOCOR, also pushed for cross-ownership in generation and distribution in contrast to the then power reform bill that banned all forms of cross-ownership. [“Legislator says Napocor sale consultant exceeded mandate,” BusinessWorld, August 18, 2000] The unbundling of rates supposedly for transparency as well as the dismantling of all forms of subsidy “as rapidly as possible” because “they send incorrect pricing signals in a free market and create economic inefficiencies” were also among the specific provisions in the EPIRA pushed by the Credit Suisse group.

Foreign investors had also publicly called on government to pass the EPIRA without delay. British power firms, for example, warned government that delays in the legislation of EPIRA were turning off investors. They also openly lobbied for cross-ownership, which was one of the debated issues then at Congress. These British firms were among the hundred or so foreign companies – mostly American and Japanese – that had expressed interest in the privatization of NAPOCOR. [“British investors ask gov’t to accelerate Napocor sale,” BusinessWorld, April 5, 1999]

Bankrolling EPIRA implementation

These creditors continue to fund the restructuring of the power sector even after the passage of EPIRA. The ADB, for instance, approved in December 2002 a partial credit guarantee (PCG) of up to $500 million equivalent in Japanese yen bonds to “help meet the cash flow requirements during the initial stage of privatization.” Specifically, the PCG was used to guarantee the bond issuance of the newly created Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corporation (PSALM). EPIRA established the PSALM to oversee the privatization of NAPOCOR.

Also in December 2002, the ADB approved a $45-million loan for the establishment of the wholesale electricity spot market (WESM) and upgrading of critical transmission lines and substations, including a TA worth $0.8 million. JBIC co-financed the project with $45.5 million. It was followed by another TA from the ADB in 2004 worth more than $1 million to boost the confidence of private investors in the EPIRA by enhancing the efficiency of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) and provide financial and technical advice to PSALM for privatization of the NAPOCOR.

So far, the largest power reform loan from the ADB after EPIRA’s enactment was the $450-million Power Sector Development Program (PSDP) approved in December 2006. In its August 2010 Completion Report, the multilateral agency said that the “ADB developed the PSDP to deal with the largest sources of the fiscal imbalance in the public sector caused by losses among the public power agencies. The PSDP was seen to reduce the losses at the (NAPOCOR) and make the (PSALM) more creditworthy, and to create the necessary conditions for the privatization of major power sector assets.”  In February 2007, JBIC provided co-financing for the PSDP worth $300 million bringing the total debt to $750 million.

PSDP’s specific objectives were (1) provide financial assistance to the government, through a program loan, to help meet part of the costs of power sector restructuring; (2) create the necessary conditions for substantial progress in privatization; (3) boost confidence in regulatory performance; and (4) smooth the transition to competitive markets. Part of the first objective is to help the national government finance the P200 billion in NAPOCOR debts that it absorbed under the EPIRA. In other words, government is servicing the debts of the state-owned corporation through additional debts.

Aside from bankrolling the implementation of EPIRA, the ADB also provided loans to private corporations involved in key privatization projects. In 2007, for example, it extended a $200-million loan to the Masinloc Power Partners Company Limited (MPPC), owned by the US-based AES Corporation, for the acquisition and rehabilitation of the Masinloc coal-fired thermal power plant. The 600-MW Masinloc plant was one of the largest privatized NAPOCOR-owned power plants. Incidentally, the ADB also provided $359 million in loans and Y12 billion in partial credit guarantee to NAPOCOR to build the Masinloc plant in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Filipino taxpayers are not only burdened by the debts that bankrolled EPIRA. We are also oppressed by exorbitant power rates, energy insecurity, etc. that resulted from the neoliberal restructuring of the industry imposed on us by foreign institutions.

Read the “Ten years of EPIRA: What went wrong?” series

Part 1 – on electricity rates

Part 2 – on NAPOCOR debts

Part 3 – on monopolies and energy security

10 years of EPIRA: what went wrong?

People's organizations, research and consumer groups, and other stakeholders will hold a forum with lawmakers to review the impact of the 10-year old EPIRA (Poster from Bayan Muna)

On June 8, Republic Act (RA) 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) of 2001 will mark its tenth year. Former President Gloria Arroyo signed EPIRA amid strong opposition from various sectors. The manner in which the law was passed also controversial. There were claims of bribery involving half a billion pesos that the Arroyo administration allegedly handed out to members of the House of Representatives (HOR) to speed up the passage of EPIRA.

Proponents touted EPIRA as the answer to our power and fiscal woes. But after ten years, the country has now the most expensive electricity in Asia. Price manipulation besets the industry. Rotating brownouts plague Mindanao. And the National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR) remains neck-deep in debt.

What went wrong? The long and short of it is that EPIRA is a wrong policy.

Brief background

EPIRA provides the legal framework for the privatization of NAPOCOR and deregulation of the power industry. The state-owned power firm used to own and operate generation plants and transmission facilities. It also held supply contracts with independent power producers (IPPs), or private companies allowed by the Power Crisis Act of 1993 (RA 7648) and BOT Law of 1994 (RA 7718) to build and operate generation plants. Under EPIRA, the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp. (PSALM) was set up to privatize the NAPOCOR’s generation and transmission assets including its IPP contracts.

The passage of EPIRA was a conditionality set by the creditors of NAPOCOR for it to access additional loans. Among its largest creditors were the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank, and Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). These creditors were worried that NAPOCOR, with its worsening financial problems, might not be able to pay them back. The pressure from these creditors provided the impetus for EPIRA’s enactment.

After 10 years, PSALM has already privatized 91.7 percent of NAPOCOR’s generation assets in the Luzon and Visayas grid. It has also privatized almost two-thirds of energy outputs under IPP contracts nationwide. Transmission was privatized as well via a 25-year Concession Agreement (CA) between government and the National Grid Corporation of the Philippine (NGCP) in January 2009. As of October 2010, remaining assets for privatization include three generating assets (1,740.10 megawatts) and eight IPP contracts (2,026.32 MW).

Soaring rates

For consumers, the most obvious impact of EPIRA is the escalation in their monthly electricity bills. From 2001 to 2010, for example, the average residential rate of the Manila Electric Company (MERALCO) has increased by 112.5 percent. The generation charge of NAPOCOR for the Luzon grid has also risen by 86 percent during the same period. (See Chart 1)

 

Rates have soared because EPIRA allowed the continued collection of the notorious purchased power adjustment (PPA).The PPA was a pre-EPIRA cost recovery mechanism so that NAPOCOR can increase its rates and pay for its ballooning obligations arising from its take-or-pay contracts with the IPPs. Take-or-pay basically means that NAPOCOR will pay an IPP for a fixed capacity regardless if such capacity was used or not. For consumers, it means that they pay for electricity that they did not even use.

Under EPIRA, the PPA was just replaced with other means of cost recovery. One is the generation rate adjustment mechanism (GRAM) which NAPOCOR recoups every quarter although the amount must be approved first by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC). Meanwhile, DUs that have their own IPPs like MERALCO can automatically recover every month the change in generation cost thru the Automatic Adjustment of Generation Rates and Systems Loss Rates (AGRA).

Aside from GRAM and AGRA, consumers are also being burdened by the Incremental Currency Exchange Rate Adjustment (ICERA). Thru the ICERA, hapless end-users of electricity shoulder the losses of companies arising from fluctuations in the foreign exchange. To illustrate, if the cost of imported oil or coal used by generation companies went up because the peso- dollar exchange rate rose, the increment will be paid for by the consumers. Like the GRAM, ICERA is recovered quarterly and needs ERC consent.

Consistent with the neoliberal agenda of EPIRA, the ERC adopted the performance-based regulation (PBR) in determining the rates of DUs. Before, DUs use the return on rate base (RORB) that pegged rates on “reasonable” return on the assets actually used in distributing electricity. The PBR, on the other hand, adheres to the principle that “good utility performance should lead to higher profits.” Thus, PBR allowed DUs to charge rates based on projected investments and operating expenses related to electricity distribution. Since using the PBR in 2009, MERALCO saw its distribution charge go up by 70.5 percent from its previous rate that used the RORB formula. (See Chart 2)

(Continued here)

P932-billion power debt: the cost of privatization

Energy Sec. Rene Almendras said that consumers should pay part of the enormous P932.21 billion in debts incurred by the energy sector. The rest will be shouldered by government, said Almendras, because they are not allowed to recover the entire P932.21 billion through the universal charge. Government, of course, will use taxpayers’ money and taxpayers are also the consumers of electricity.

In other words, we will absorb the full impact of the huge liabilities of the National Power Corp. (NAPOCOR), Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp. (PSALM), and the National Transmission Corp. (TRANSCO). PSALM accounts for 84.2 percent of the P932.21-billion debt. But note that PSALM just absorbed the debts of NAPOCOR as prescribed by the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001 (EPIRA) or Republic Act (RA) 9136. TRANSCO is also a spinoff of NAPOCOR’s privatization under EPIRA. (See Chart)

More financial woes

Before EPIRA was passed in 2001, the debt of NAPOCOR was pegged at $16.5 billion or about P729.14 billion (based on an exchange rate of P44.19 per US dollar, the 2000 average according to central bank data). Proponents of power privatization made the public believe that such heavy debt burden can be reduced by EPIRA. Economic managers of the Arroyo administration, for instance, claimed that the privatization of NAPOCOR will yield a surplus of some P22.29 billion in consolidated public sector deficit (CPSD) by 2009. CPSD includes the budget deficit of the national government and its monitored government-owned and –controlled corporations (GOCCs) and reflects the public sector’s financial position.

But instead of a reduced debt, Filipino taxpayers and consumers are now confronted with a power debt that is more than P203 billion larger than before state-owned power plants and transmission assets were sold to the biggest local compradors and foreign companies. The CPSD for 2010, meanwhile, is expected to hit P281.3 billion. Government ended up more indebted and bankrupt, while the people oppressed thrice over – by servicing the debt through taxes, by enduring lack of social services as funds are siphoned off by debt servicing, and by paying exorbitant monthly electricity bills to cover among others payment for NAPOCOR debts.

This is the cost of the privatization of state assets that we have been paying for in the name of so-called fiscal consolidation, which by the way is the favorite buzzword today of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and unsurprisingly being echoed by Aquino’s finance officials. President Noynoy Aquino also made it clear that privatization, including through public-private partnership (PPP), will be among the main pillars of his medium-term economic program.  

Stranded costs

As mentioned, bulk of the power sector’s debt, P785.09 billion, represents PSALM obligations, which it absorbed from NAPOCOR under EPIRA. Specifically, these are called stranded debts and stranded contract costs. Stranded debts refer to any unpaid financial obligations of NAPOCOR which have not been liquidated by the proceeds from the sale and privatization of its assets. Stranded contract costs refer to the excess of the contracted cost of electricity under contracts entered into by NAPOCOR with independent power producers (IPPs) as of Dec. 31, 2000 over the actual selling price of the contracted energy output of such contracts in the market. As mandated by EPIRA, these costs shall be passed on to hapless consumers through the universal charge.

Of the P785.09 billion debt of PSALM, stranded debts account for about P525.76 billion. PSALM has already filed two separate petitions in 2009 and this year before the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to recover the amount through a total rate hike of P1.17 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Meanwhile, PSALM’s stranded contract costs recovery, if approved by the ERC, will result in a rate hike of 69.03 centavos per kWh. Total rate hike due to stranded costs recovery thus could reach P1.86 per kWh that shall be reflected in the universal charge.

Privatization proceeds

But how and why did the debts of NAPOCOR/PSALM increase? Ideally, the debt of NAPOCOR should have been settled by the proceeds from the privatization of its power generation plants and other assets. This, however, did not happen as the sale of power plants has been greatly delayed and investor appetite hampered by among others lack of guaranteed markets through supply contracts and irregularities in the bidding process. Consequently, government has been forced to continue maintaining the unsold power plants and in the process incurred more debts.

EPIRA has only surpassed the 70-percent mark in privatized assets and contracted capacities early this year, and even this is still unofficial since the accomplishment counts Angat dam that is currently under question before the Supreme Court (SC). So far, PSALM has clinched privatization deals worth a total of $6.7 billion ($3.47 billion for power plants and $3.23 billion for contracted capacities) while the privatization of TRANSCO yielded $3.9 billion. But the privatization revenues as well as income from remaining power plants are not enough to cover the financial obligations of PSALM to creditors as well as to NAPOCOR’s old IPP contracts. In 2009, for instance, debt service maturities and obligations to IPPs reached $2.45 billion (about P116.72 billion, based on the 2009 average exchange rate), dwarfing the P10-billion income PSALM generated from the still unprivatized power plants during the same period.

Furthermore, we have also learned recently that PSALM has incurred “privatization-related expenses” that it integrated in its calculation of recoverable stranded costs. These include a privatization bonus for PSALM officials and employees amounting to P80.9 million as well as privatization consultancy fees worth P118 million.  

Sweetheart deals

And how and why did NAPOCOR incur such huge debts prior to EPIRA? Since the time of the Cory Aquino administration, government has been entering into various PPP deals with private corporations to build power plants under the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) Law or RA 7718. To entice investors, government forged “sweetheart deals” with them. Government agreed to shoulder all the risks associated with market demand, fuel cost and foreign exchange fluctuation. The “take or pay” clause in these onerous contracts required NAPOCOR to pay 70 percent to 100 percent of the capacity of an IPP (capacity fee), whether electricity is actually delivered and used or not. (Read a 2004 article I wrote about these sweetheart deals here.)

In a 2002 review IPP contracts, an interagency committee found out that at least 26 contracts are fraught with financial issues, meaning they contain provisions (take or pay, fuel cost guarantee, etc) that are financially disadvantageous and burdensome for government. The then Arroyo administration set up the IPP review body amid strong public protest against exorbitant electricity rates. The table below lists these financially onerous IPP contracts. Unfortunately, government did not rescind these contracts after warnings from the foreign creditors and power firms that doing so would undermine investor confidence in the country.

Today, these debts are approaching the P1-trillion mark and the Aquino administration wants us – as consumers and taxpayers – to shoulder the burden. We should not honor these illegitimate debts. We should not allow PSALM to further hike power rates in order to recover NAPOCOR’s stranded costs through the universal charge. NAPOCOR’s debts should at least be renegotiated with creditors and the 2002 review of IPP contracts must be revisited in order to find ways to substantially reduce the debt burden. EPIRA must be finally repealed to stop the power sector’s financial bleeding.

The vicious cycle of privatization, debt, and exorbitant electricity rates must be stopped from further oppressing the people, especially the poor. Unfortunately, the policy direction of President Aquino points to more privatization, more debt, and more exorbitant electricity rates.

More power rate hikes coming soon

meralco
Meralco has raised its generation charge for the fourth straight month and the seventh time since the start of the year (Photo from Reuters/www.daylife.com)

Sorry folks. Meralco (Manila Electric Co) “miscalculated” and had to increase our monthly bills again by 44 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh). (Read here) This is the fourth straight month that the giant utility has raised its generation charge and the seventh time since January. This also means that we will be paying Meralco P2.18 per kWh more this month than what we used to pay at the start of the year. If you are consuming 200 kWh a month, it means you will be paying about P236 more in your August billing than what you paid Meralco last January. The bad news is the power profiteers are just getting started.

Good news?

The good news is, according to Malacañang spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, high electricity rates are just temporary and may go down next month. No, the Aquino administration will not compel the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to scrap the Automatic Adjustment of Generation Rates (AGRA) that has legitimized the monthly increases in Meralco’s generation charge. Lacierda, quoting Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, said that they just expect the San Jose power plant to be completely rehabilitated by September. “Hopefully next month we will have lower prices of electricity,” Lacierda said. (Read here)

I do not know which “San Jose power plant” Lacierda is referring to. But I suppose it is the San Jose substation in Bulacan, which is not a power generation plant but a 2,400 Megavolt-Ampere (MVA) transmission facility. In May, the ERC approved the rehabilitation of the San Jose substation, which serves 40 percent of Metro Manila’s power needs, and ordered the replacement of its transformers. The ERC assured then that the rehabilitation “will have no immediate impact on the price of electricity charged to consumers”. (Read here)

Anyway, Lacierda and Almendras are blatantly misleading the people. Electricity rates will remain unreasonably high and will continue to increase in the coming months and years unless Congress will repeal Republic Act (RA) 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001. (Read here) No less than President Noynoy Aquino has assured the people of high power rates in his State of the Nation Address (Sona), in which he lambasted the Arroyo administration for allowing the National Power Corp. (Napocor) to sell electricity at a loss. But Aquino’s argument on why the state-owned power firm went broke ignored the role of privatization as I’ve pointed out in a previous post. (Read here)

Nationwide increases

The problem of exorbitant and unabated power rate hikes is not confined to Metro Manila or Meralco’s franchise area. Using the Performance Based Regulation (PBR) scheme, a rate-setting methodology for distribution utilities that was made possible under Epira (Read here), the Visayan Electric Co (Veco), for example, has recently raised its distribution charge for residential customers by 3.41 percent. (Read here) Meralco, using the PBR methodology, has also increased its distribution charge by a total of 35 percent last year, on top of its increases in generation charge. (Read here)

But the rate increases of Meralco, Veco and other distribution utilities are just a portion of the bigger increases that households nationwide will have to face soon. The Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management (Psalm) Corp., which Epira created to undertake the privatization of Napocor’s generation assets, has asked the ERC for rate increases (all in all, about P1.86 per kWh) to recoup supposed losses arising from stranded costs (read: guaranteed profits of independent power producers) as well as fat bonuses of Psalm officials. (Read here) The Philippine Electricity Market Corp. (PEMC), which is the governance arm of the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM), another Epira creation, has filed a petition for a 74-centavo per kWh hike in the spot market’s transaction fees. (Read here) The National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP), which took over the privatized transmission facilities, again as mandated by Epira, is seeking its own rate increase of 5 centavos per kWh in Mindanao. (Read here) Finally, Napocor has pending applications for rate increases of P3.38 per kWh in Luzon and P4.71 in the Visayas to recover adjustments in generation costs and currency fluctuations. (Read here)

Imagine how much our monthly electricity bill will cost if all these applications – on top of the automatic monthly increases such as Meralco’s generation charge – were approved by the ERC.

SONA 2010: Water, power crises

Aquino just inherited from previous administrations the country’s water and power insecurity but the challenge is will he overhaul the existing policy framework that has allowed the privatization and deregulation of the country’s utility sectors and created the mess we are in right now? (Photo from Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo)

First published by the Philippine Online Chronicles

Part 1

President Benigno Aquino III will hold his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 26 amid a water shortage engulfing a substantial portion of Metro Manila, with long queues for rationed water becoming a common sight.

Meanwhile, about two weeks ago, around the same time when the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) announced another rate hike, a brownout hit the President’s residence at Times Street in Quezon City which he blamed for arriving late for an appointment. Rotating brownouts have been just as frequent as power rate hikes in the past couple of months.

“Wala nang kuryente, wala pang tubig, ang taas pa ng singil” is the common man’s complaint.

The double whammy of water and power crises, of supply disruptions and skyrocketing rates is being felt not only in the metropolis but nationwide. Government officials and private utilities have pinned the blame squarely on force ma jeure like the prolonged dry spell and slow dam replenishment due to lack of enough rains.

However, there are obvious policy issues that the latest episodes in water and power supply insecurity have brought to the fore. Considering their immediate and long-term effects on the people’s welfare and overall economic development, Aquino is expected by the public and policy makers to outline in his SONA how the administration plans to address these recurring problems.

Magnitude of the water shortage

According to the latest update from the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), 344 barangays (villages) with close to 3 million people in the service area of Maynilad Water Services Inc. are already affected by the water shortage. The number is almost half (49 percent) of the entire West Zone concession area of Maynilad, which together with its East Zone counterpart Manila Water Co. Inc., took over the water distribution function of the privatized Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) in 1997.

Maynilad chief operating officer Herbert Consunji disclosed that as of July 20, at least 18 percent (equivalent to some 450,000 people) of those affected by the water shortage in the West Zone can be considered as “severely affected”. This means that these areas have available water supply for only up to six hours at most or none at all.

In an earlier advisory posted on its website, Maynilad said that among those severely affected are 22 barangays in Quezon City, 13 barangays in Caloocan City, 4 barangays in Malabon, 4 barangays in Valenzuela City, 2 barangays in Las Pinas City, and 1 barangay in Navotas. The Pangilinan-Consunji-controlled water utility has already deployed 28 tankers to ration water in these areas. Reports say that residents are forced to line up as early as 5 AM and wait for Maynilad’s tankers.

In the service area of Manila Water, a smaller 21 percent is being affected by the water shortage, according to DPWH Secretary Rogelio Singson as quoted in a news report. The Ayala-led water firm in a separate report admitted that there is already a gradual reduction in water pressure in elevated within its concession area such as in parts of Pasig, Marikina, Cainta, Rodriguez, Taguig, and San Mateo in Rizal province. Manila Water may also have to resort to water rationing if the water level in Angat Dam – where they and Maynilad get 97 percent of their water supply for the domestic needs of Metro Manila and parts of Cavite and Rizal – will not improve in the coming months.

Blame it on the (lack of) rain

Due to a depleted water level because of the El Niño phenomenon, the private water concessionaires said that their water allocation from Angat Dam has substantially declined. DPWH reported that at present, Maynilad is actually receiving 1,800 million liters per day from Angat Dam, down from its normal level of 2,400 million liters per day (a 33.3 percent reduction). Manila Water, on the other hand, has seen its allocation dwindle to 1,245 million liters per day from 1,600 million liters per day, or a 28.5 percent reduction.

Latest update from the MWSS on the water level in Angat Dam pegged it at

Among the many promises of water privatization was 24/7 access to water for all (Photo from Raffy Lerma)

158.2 meters above sea level (masl) as of July 21. A day before that, it dropped to 157.56 masl, lower than its historic low of 158.15 masl in September 1998 which was also an El Niño year. Authorities said that recent typhoons “Basyang” and “Caloy” did not substantially replenish Angat Dam, adding up a combined 27 centimeters only. The critical level of Angat Dam is pegged at 180 masl, which was breached in April during the height of the latest El Niño. Without heavy rains, the dam’s water is expected to further recede to 147 masl by September. At 120 masl, the dam could no longer provide water for Metro Manila’s domestic consumption.

Rotating brownouts, power rate hikes

The lack of rains and depleting water level in the country’s major dams because of the El Niño have also been blamed for the power crisis – characterized by rotating brownouts and spikes in electricity rates – that has hit the country this year. In March, the power supply deficits reached record highs with Luzon experiencing a shortfall of 641 megawatts (MW) and Mindanao, 700 MW, according to the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP).

Meralco had to implement a 90-minute power supply disruption throughout the day because of the supposed deficiency in available electricity. In Mindanao, blackouts have lasted by up to 12 hours a day, a situation that began as early as February. The southern island heavily depends on hydro power for its electricity needs, with hydropower plants accounting for 53.1 percent of Mindanao’s generating capacity, according to data from the Mindanao Economic Development Council (MEDCO).

But low water levels derailed the operation of these power plants. The 727-MW Agus and 255-MW Pulangi hydroelectric power plants, for instance, experienced an 80 and 90 percent reduction in capacity, respectively because of the prolonged drought. The water level in Lake Lanao, source for most of the hydropower plants in Mindanao, has breached its critical level of 699.15 meters in early March and dropped to 699.08 meters.

In addition, reduced power supply due to depleted dams amid high electricity consumption because of the hot temperature brought about by El Niño has also pushed up power rates throughout the country. Meralco, for example, has increased its rates several times in the past six months, with the latest rate hike of 5.8 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh) announced in the first week of July, supposedly because of high generation charges at the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM). Overall, Meralco’s generation charge has already jumped by P1.84 per kWh between January and July.

Part 2

The double whammy of water and power crises – major issues that require urgent response and actions from President Benigno Aquino III

Policy issues

While the private companies and government agencies concerned have conveniently blamed natural phenomenon for the water and power crises, a deeper look will show that the conditions for the crises have been laid out and at the same time aggravated by wrong policies.

Both the water and power sectors have been deeply privatized, a process that was set off by Aquino’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino in the late 1980s, accelerated by the Ramos and Estrada administrations in the 1990s, then continued and intensified by former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Among the many promises made by the private water concessionaires and hyped by the then Ramos administration to justify the privatization of the MWSS was upgrading the decrepit water system infrastructure. Such upgrade intends to substantially reduce non-revenue water (NRW, or water lost due to leaks and pilferage) and help achieve universal and 24/7 water supply for an increasing number of households. In their original concession agreement with MWSS, the private water firms promised to provide universal access by 2001.

But until today, less than 60 percent of 790,000 households in Maynilad’s service area have 24-hour water service while only 74 percent receive water at 7-pound per square inch (PSI) or stronger pressure. More than half (53 percent) of water allocated to Maynilad continues to get wasted because of leaks and pilferage. Meanwhile, Manila Water, claims 99 percent water supply coverage in its service area but will not say how big the portion is with individual and direct household connection and those serviced by private water suppliers or “middlemen”. These areas served by a third party private contractor are often poor communities and most vulnerable to water supply disruption.

Amid water supply problems, Maynilad and Manila Water jacked up their rates tremendously, taking advantage of full-cost recovery mechanisms offered by privatization. Since MWSS was privatized, Maynilad’s basic charge has already soared by 449 percent and Manila Water, by 845 percent.

Private monopolies and manipulation

The power crisis that the country has been facing is also more man-made than natural. Plant shutdowns and supposed fuel constraints have combined with the impact of depleted dams on hydropower generation to substantially constrict available capacity throughout the islands. The implementation of Republic Act (RA) 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001, which facilitated the privatization of power generation and transmission as well as deregulated the setting of power rates, has not addressed the country’s energy security issues.

Under Epira, hydro and other power plants have been privatized and sold to foreign and local firms (Photo from napocor.gov.ph)

Epira merely transferred the state monopoly on power to private companies, which has set the stage for various forms of possible abuses and manipulation. Cross-ownership, for instance, between distributors like Meralco and power producers made electricity rates more blurred than transparent.

Take the case of the WESM, which Epira created to supposedly allow freer competition among industry players but in fact has become a venue for speculation and rigging of prices. Among the so-called independent power producers (IPPs) trading in the WESM is First Gen Power Corp. that runs two natural gas-fired power plants (1,000-MW Sta. Rita and 500-MW San Lorenzo) and two hydropower plants (100-MW Pantabangan and 12-MW Masiway). The Lopez family, which controls 13.4 percent of Meralco, owns First Gen which aside from the WESM transactions also supplies 35.7 percent of Meralco’s power requirements.

Plant shutdowns

Furthermore, another Meralco owner, San Miguel Energy Corp. (SMEC) which has a 34-percent stake in the utility giant, also operates the biggest power plants in the country like the 620-MW Limay Combined Cycle Power Plant, the 1,000-MW Sual Coal-Fired Power Plant, and the 1,200-MW Ilijan Combined Cycle Power Plant. During the height of the El Niño, SMEC shut down, along with other privately operated plants, one unit of its Sual plant (with a capacity of 540 MW) due to “coal supply problems”. Its Limay plant also went offline for about three weeks early this year for “inspection purposes”.

The unscheduled outages in its power plants fueled talks that SMEC may have intentionally decommissioned the Sual and Limay to constrict power supply and jack up rates. After the SMEC plant shutdowns, First Gen followed suit with its own maintenance shutdown of its natural gas-fired Sta. Rita and San Lorenzo power plants in mid-February to early March.

The cost of generation has gone sky-high because of these plant shutdowns that artificially reduced available capacity. Meanwhile, power retailers like Meralco have been able to easily pass on the charges to unfortunate end-consumers. Under Epira, they are allowed to automatically adjust generation charges on a monthly basis through a cost recovery mechanism called Automatic Adjustment of Generation Rates (AGRA).

Is Noynoy up to the challenge?

Despite the recurring problems caused by its flawed policies on water and power, the previous Arroyo administration has continued the relentless march towards the neoliberal restructuring of these sectors. In fact, among what can be considered a midnight deal, is the April 28 bidding of the Angat Dam which was won by a South Korean power company. If this deal will be completed, consumers fear of more water supply woes even as the country’s energy needs are not necessarily guaranteed.

To be sure, President Aquino just inherited from previous administrations these problems besetting the country’s water and power security. The challenge, however, is will he overhaul the existing policy framework that has allowed the privatization and deregulation of the country’s utility sectors and created the mess we are in right now?

He will have the chance to do this in his first SONA on Monday when he outlines his vision for the country in the next six years. People who have been abused long enough by private water and power utilities, who suffered endless brownouts and lack of water amid skyrocketing monthly bills, will certainly be interested to listen.

Meralco’s rate hikes and neoliberal power reform (2)

Continued from Part 1

The series of increases in generation charge that Meralco has implemented this year is made possible by deregulation under Epira. Meralco explains in its website that “the level of Generation Charge is adjusted on a monthly basis as prescribed by the ERC in its Order dated October 13, 2004 under ERC Case No. 2004-322 approving the ‘Guidelines for the Automatic Adjustment of Generation Rates  and System Loss Rates by Distribution Utilities or the AGRA’”.

Increasing rates

Section 43 (f) of Epira authorizes the ERC to “adopt alternative forms of internationally-accepted rate setting methodology that will ensure reasonable price of electricity and non-discriminatory rates”. Since power rates have been unbundled under Epira, the ERC have set different rate setting methodologies for generation, transmission, and distribution as well as system loss.

Distribution utilities (DUs) like Meralco use the Performance-Based Regulation (PBR) methodology for their distribution rates and the AGRA to reflect adjustments in generation costs charged by their suppliers. AGRA allows DUs to calculate new generation rates on the tenth day of each calendar month. In the last 12 months, generation rates “passed on” by Meralco have been on an upward trend jacking up the electricity bill of end-users. (See Chart)

According to the ERC, the AGRA was devised to ensure, among others, “transparent and reasonable prices of electric power service in a regime of free and fair competition and to achieve greater operational and economic efficiency”.

From PPA to AGRA

But is it fair and reasonable for end-consumers to shoulder the adjustments under the AGRA? The AGRA actually is the latest incarnation of the notorious, pre-Epira Purchased Power Adjustment (PPA). The PPA was an automatic cost recovery mechanism designed to attract private IPPs in power generation. Through the PPA, IPPs are assured that they will be paid for contracted capacity (even if they did not actually produce it) and they will be protected from the fluctuating costs of fuel and foreign exchange rate – all of which are shouldered by the consumers in the form of PPA.

When Epira’s unbundling of rates was implemented in May 2003, the PPA was incorporated in the generation rates charged by IPPs and passed on to end-consumers by Meralco and other DUs in the form of the Generation Rate Adjustment Mechanism (GRAM). The GRAM was a deferred recovery mechanism using a three-month test period. Napocor and DUs had to apply their quarterly GRAM before the ERC, which will review and approve it. Meralco and other DUs criticized the GRAM because it “does not represent the true cost of power for the period that it is being recovered” and that “it resulted to cash flow problems on the part of the DUs”.

Automatic adjustments

Thus, the ERC replaced the GRAM used by the DUs with the AGRA (Napocor, on the other hand, continues to use the GRAM). The main difference is the manner of recovery – the AGRA like the PPA is automatically calculated and collected by Meralco and other DUs every month (i.e. without public hearings conducted by the ERC like in the case of GRAM).

The only sort of “oversight” on AGRA that the ERC exercises is that “at least every six months, the ERC shall verify the recovery of Generation Costs by comparing the actual allowable costs incurred for the period with actual revenues for the same period generated by the generation rates and the portion of the Systems Loss Rates attributable to Generation Costs”.  But if the ERC fails to verify the generation rate within six months from the submission of calculation by a DU, “the rates shall be deemed final and confirmed”. This set up not only gives Meralco more opportunities to exploit consumers but even legitimizes such abuse.

Automatic cost recovery schemes such as AGRA are indispensable in a deregulated and privatized energy sector. They are the concrete operationalization of the neoliberal principle of making so-called market forces in a regime of presumed free and fair competition determine the cost of a commodity or service. But the problem is there is neither free nor fair competition in the power sector as giant private monopolies like Meralco have been further strengthened by Epira. Worse, a related sector that significantly affects the cost of power, the oil industry, is also deregulated and dominated by private monopolies thus doubling up the burden of consumers.

Market-based, pro-investment rates 

Aside from the AGRA, Meralco is also allowed to increase its distribution rates using another market-based mechanism – the PBR. Based on Epira’s Section 43 (f) provision, the ERC is using the PBR to determine the rates that Meralco and others can charge. The PBR, which hiked Meralco’s distribution charge by a total of 41 centavos per kWh in separate increases in April and December last year, was chosen by design.

Consistent with the neoliberal agenda of Epira, PBR makes rates setting more market-based and reduces regulatory oversight, abolishing the 8-12 percent return on rate base (RORB) that DUs were allowed to use in the past. Under an RORB formula, rates are pegged on “reasonable” return on the assets actually used in distributing electricity. The PBR, on the other hand, adheres to the principle that “good utility performance should lead to higher profits” and thus allows DUs to charge rates based on projected investments and operating expenses related to electricity distribution. Like the AGRA in the case of power generation, the PBR ensures the commercial viability of DUs by making the end-consumers shoulder the risks of future investments and operating costs of running the utility.

Revenue-neutral?

The generation charge is just one of the 20 unbundled items that can be found in a Meralco monthly bill. But it comprises 50-60 percent of what Meralco customers pay. (The distribution charge, on the other hand, accounts for 20-25 percent of the monthly bill, Meralco claims.) The utility giant repeatedly claims that as a pass through charge, generation rate is revenue-neutral or it does not add anything to Meralco’s income. This may be true, but it does not mean that certain owners of Meralco do not benefit from increased generation rates.

The Lopez family, which currently controls 13.4 percent of Meralco, for instance, also owns the IPP First Gen that in turn owns First Gas Power Corp., operator of the 1,000 megawatt (MW) Sta. Rita Power Plant, and the FGP Corp. which operates the 500-MW Sta. Lorenzo Power Plant. In May 2010, the two power plants accounted for a combined 35.7 percent of power supplied to Meralco.

Other power sources of Meralco include the Napocor, which accounted for 24.3 percent and the wholesale electricity spot market (WESM), 17.2 percent. WESM was created under Epira as a spot market for trading electricity in the Philippines. Among the power generators involved in the WESM are the Lopez-owned First Gen power plants and the First Gen Hydro Corp., which runs the 100-MW Pantabangan Hydroelectric Plant and the 12-MW Masiway hydro plant. In addition, the Lopez family also established the First Gen Energy Solutions to “sell, market, or aggregate electricity to end-users” in the WESM.

Private monopoly

Aside from not prohibiting owners of DUs to also operate generation plants, Epira also allowed the DUs themselves to own power generation plants. Meralco, for instance, is planning to get into power generation to remain “competitive” when open access is implemented next year. Open access, another restructuring under Epira that is expected to be operational as early as next year, allows customers using not less than 1 MW to choose their own suppliers.

Epira’s objective was to dismantle the monopoly of Napocor over the power industry. But by allowing cross-ownership in distribution and generation, it has simply transferred such monopoly control to a few private companies such as Meralco. Transmission is also now a private monopoly by a consortium that includes Enrique Razon’s Monte Oro.

A year after open access, Meralco’s supply contract with Napocor shall automatically lapse. Under Epira, DUs are allowed to source not more than 50 percent of its power needs from its bilateral contracts with affiliated IPPs but the cap does not cover contracts forged before Epira was passed (such as Meralco’s supply contracts with First Gen). Meanwhile, DUs are also mandated by Epira to purchase at least 10 percent of their power requirements from the WESM for the first five years of the spot market’s operation. Epira is not clear what will happen after this period. In other words, Meralco can purchase as much as 90-100 percent of its power needs from affiliated IPPs, making cost manipulation easier.

Spot market manipulation

But even if Meralco is required to buy more from the WESM, it still does not guarantee cheaper and more reasonable power rates. This is because even the spot market which is supposed to facilitate free competition among suppliers to bring down electricity costs has been used to manipulate and jack up electricity rates. In fact, the largest monthly increase in generation charge implemented by Meralco so far this year was by 93 centavos per kWh in April, which the utility giant blamed on the increase in the price of WESM.

The WESM has become a venue for speculation in the price of electricity to the detriment of consumers. At one point in February, when talks about limited power supply due to El Niño started to surface, the price of electricity in the spot market jumped to an unbelievably high P68 per kWh.

It was also observed that half the time in the first two months of the year, the maximum offered capacity in Luzon was lower than peak demand although reported dependable capacity was even higher than peak demand. During this period, some big plants like San Miguel Energy Corp.’s (SMEC) 540-MW Sual Unit 1 power plant stopped operation for one month due to “coal supply problems”. Another SMEC-owned power plant, the 620-MW Limay power plant, also went offline for about three weeks during the same period for “inspection purposes”. San Miguel also has a 34 percent stake in Meralco. The unscheduled outages in its power plants fueled talks that SMEC may have intentionally shut down the Sual and Limay plants to constrict power supply and jack up rates.  

At the mercy of “market forces”

Epira did not make power rates charged by Meralco and other DUs in the country cheaper, reasonable, or even transparent. By further strengthening the monopoly control of private utility giants like Meralco through privatization and deregulation of power rates, Epira made consumers even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The series of increases in the generation charge this year amid allegations of supply manipulation and speculation in the WESM and unresolved and fresh cases of Meralco’s overcharging has made the long-time practice by power companies of passing all the business risks associated with generation, transmission, and distribution to hapless consumers even more deplorable. For consumers, there is no other way out of this quagmire but to repeal Epira and reverse the privatization and deregulation of the power industry.