Oil deregulation, Power industry, Privatization, Water crisis

Overpriced oil inflates costs of El Niño, power crisis

Petron and other oil firms have been jacking up pump prices in recent weeks (Photo from http://www.petronmarketing.com)

Those who are ready to absolve government for the harmful effects of El Niño should think again. While El Niño is a natural phenomenon, its impact on the people and the economy could have been eased by right government policies. Sadly, the policies in place have exposed the country not only to the strongest blows from what experts describe as a “moderate” El Niño. These flawed policies have also exposed us to El Niño’s magnified impact.

Deregulated, privatized energy

Take the case of power and oil – strategic sectors that have been privatized and deregulated by government. As the water level in dams around the country fell, hydropower generation also declined. Consequently, more power is generated from plants running on expensive and overpriced oil. To make the situation worse, oil prices have been on an uptrend again in the past few weeks. Electricity bills, which are also artificially bloated, climbed as a result. Prices of other commodities and services are sure to follow.

Such predicament could have been capably addressed by a government that has the needed policy tools. But it threw away these tools when it allowed private corporations to take control of the entire energy sector. It tried to reclaim some of these tools through emergency powers but was met with understandable public skepticism. In the end, the reality that Congress could not be convened at this point in the election season forced government to give up the plan.

As an alternative, government now intends to lease modular generating sets that could produce an additional 160 megawatts (MW) of electricity for Mindanao. By itself, this plan is already costly with an initial tab of P5.5 billion aside from increasing power rates in Mindanao by P14 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). But it is made even costlier by overpriced oil that will be used in great amounts to feed the generating sets.

Amid the El Niño, energy companies, with their greed and abuses un-moderated, are having a heyday.

P8.12 per liter overpricing

In the coming months, households not only in Mindanao will have to pay for higher electricity bills. The reason is not only the limited supply of cheaper hydropower due to El Niño. As more power is generated by oil-fed power plants, consumers also become more exposed to the impact of frequent oil price hikes and overpriced petroleum.

Under Republic Act (RA) 8479 or the Oil Deregulation Law of 1998, oil companies are allowed to increase pump prices at whim. They are not even required to inform the public about their price changes, much less explain their price hikes. This policy has been abused to the hilt by the oil firms. The National Economic Development Authority (Neda) itself has once confirmed that oil firms are indeed overpricing their products.

As of January 2010, oil products in the country are still overpriced by an average of P8.12 per liter. This figure is based on the monthly difference between the ideal and actual changes in pump prices from January 2008 to January 2010. The ideal pump price adjustment is computed using the difference in the monthly averages of Dubai crude and foreign exchange (forex) rate during the said period. The actual price movement, meanwhile, is based on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) monitoring.

There is no consolidated data yet on actual pump price movement for February and March. But note that in February, there should have been an 83-centavo per liter rollback based on Dubai crude and forex monthly movements. The actual pump price of diesel, however, did not move during the said month while kerosene prices even jumped by 25 centavos a liter. In other words, the overpricing could be much higher (aside from the fact that even before imported oil reach our ports, they are already overpriced due to global monopoly control by the oil giants).

Daily overcharges of P7.44 M for Minda extra power

Meanwhile, government’s plan to lease modular generation sets to produce

Power generated by the Agus and other hydroelectric power plants in Mindanao has drastically fallen due to El Nino (photo from http://static.panoramio.com/)

an additional 160 MW of electricity in Mindanao will require millions of liters of petroleum. For purposes of comparison, let us look at the 1 MW Generac Diesel Power Module manufactured by Mitsubishi. This generator, running at 100 percent capacity, consumes 238.56 liters per hour of diesel; at 75 percent, 178.92 liters; and at 50 percent, 119.28 liters.

Using this as yardstick, and factoring in the P8.12 per liter in overpricing, we can estimate how much the people will needlessly spend for additional electricity in Mindanao. We shall use the 100 percent capacity level since the generating plants that will be leased need to run at full capacity to augment the power shortage in the region.

Per hour, the overpricing would be equivalent to P1,937.11. If a 1-MW generator runs for the entire day, the extra cost would be P46,490.57. If the entire 160 MW is generated in a day, the figure would be P7.44 million. For one month (30 days), the overpricing would be P223.15 million. If the 160-MW generators were commissioned for three months (April to June), taxpayers will unjustly shell out around P669.45 million on top of the real price of diesel and the cost of leasing the generating plants.

Unabated oil price hikes and overpricing also worsen the people’s burden due to El Niño in other ways. For instance, farmers who rely on irrigation pumps and fishers who use motorized bancas will have to pay more for gasoline. Note that due to El Niño, more farmers turn to irrigation pumps. Fishers also consume more gasoline as they spend more time fishing (warm temperature drives fish to deeper waters, fishers claim).

Overpriced power, too

Meanwhile, outstanding issues in the power sector continue to unjustly burden the people with or without an El Niño. Due to the ongoing implementation of RA 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001, power rates remain exorbitant and continue to shoot up. Automatic adjustment in generation charges, for instance, allowed Meralco to again hike its rates for March by P1.38 per kWh. Just last year, Meralco jacked up its distribution rates by 41 centavos per kWh.

The Epira-created Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM) also gave more opportunities for the new private power monopolies to manipulate electricity rates. In February this year, for example, power rates in the WESM spiked to as much as P68 per kWh, which Arroyo’s own economic adviser Albay Gov. Joey Salceda described as “unspeakable”. Apparently, power companies trading in the spot market withheld supply, a market abuse easily done by firms in control of both distribution and generation, jacking up prices in the process. Power sold in the Luzon grid is dispatched through the WESM, a mechanism that will also be set up in the Visayas soon.

These increases become more deplorable as power companies, like the oil firms, also overcharge the consumers. In its December 2009 report, for instance, the Commission on Audit (COA) said that Meralco’s illegal charges could reach more than P7 billion. And Meralco has not even com-

Activists call for the nationalization of the oil industry (photo from http://www.bayan.ph)

pletely refunded the P34.12 billion in overcharges that it illegally imposed on its almost 5 million customers in the past.

Nationalized energy

The energy sector is a lucrative industry but the billions of profits it makes come at the expense of the people and national development. Such greed and abuse become more deplorable during times of natural calamities such as the current El Niño when the people’s poverty and hunger intensify and the domestic economy is further undermined.

What we need is an oil and power industry that is not privatized and deregulated, and that is not controlled by the Cojuangcos, Aboitizes, Lopezes, Pangilinans and their American, European, and Japanese partners. What we need is an energy sector that is nationalized, state-owned, and effectively controlled by the Filipino people. Only then can we stop overpricing in petroleum and electricity, and better plan the energy needs of our people and economy.

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Consumer issues, Power industry, Privatization

Meralco’s insulting attempt at pa-pogi

Meralco bill (Image from ofwnow.com)

On Tuesday (March 9), the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) asked the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to allow it to “reduce” and spread over several months the whopping P1.83 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) hike in this month’s generation charge.

This is clearly a case of an insulting attempt at pa-pogi. Meralco wants to make it appear that consumers should have utang na loob for the firm’s voluntary offer to mitigate the impact of a drastic rate hike when in reality, the rate increase is unreasonable and Meralco has billions of unpaid debts to its close to 5 million customers.

Lower rate hike

In its petition, Meralco said that instead of a one-time hike of P1.8298 per kWh in generation charge for March, the ERC approve a rate hike of just P1.3852. The remaining balance of 44.46 centavos shall be collected from April to September to ease the impact of the increase on its customers.

Under the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001, distribution utilities like Meralco can implement automatic generation rate adjustment. This means that they can automatically pass on to consumers increases in the cost of power generation.

Overcharging probe

Meralco’s move comes amid an ongoing probe on fresh allegations that the power firm overcharged its customers. In a December 2009 report, but released to the public only last month by the ERC, the Commission on Audit (COA) accused Meralco of overcharging its customers by as much as P7.29 billion.

According to the COA report, Meralco illegally passed on to consumers operating expenses such as P2.36 billion worth of employees’ pensions and benefits. Consumers were also made to shoulder the costs of property and equipment that COA said are questionable including the construction of a P526.2-million creek and a P156-million parking lot.

The ERC is expected to conduct public hearings this month to determine if the power firm needs to refund or implement a rate reduction to offset its over collections. Or it can also uphold Meralco’s claim of innocence.

Propensity for abuse

But this is not the first time that Meralco has been accused of overcharging. In 2003,  the Supreme Court (SC) affirmed COA’s findings that Meralco illegally collected P30.2 billion from its customers from 1994 to 2002. COA discovered that Meralco included income taxes in its RORB (return on rate base) calculations resulting in bloated electricity bills for consumers. Until today, the power distributor has yet to fully comply with the refund order of the SC.

Far from the image of a considerate and responsible company it desperately hopes to portray, Meralco has shown its unmistakable propensity for abuse. Its pattern of overcollections in the past couple of years clearly attests to this. Aside from the P30.2 billion, Meralco was also ordered by the ERC to return P2.88 billion in meter deposits as well as P3.92 billion in over-recovery of currency adjustments.

Upholding public interest

The power distributor could not claim that its generation charge is simply a pass on cost. Remember that Meralco sources its electricity from its own independent power producers (IPPs) and sister firms. Even in the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM), which Meralco is citing for the sudden and drastic hike in this month’s generation charges, Meralco’s sister companies and IPPs allow Meralco to account for as much as 40 percent of generated capacity.

Thus, consumers have nothing to thank Meralco for. We do not owe Meralco a single centavo, and it is Meralco that still has to return billions of pesos it illegally collected from us.

In light of the latest COA report accusing Meralco of again overcharging the consumers, the ERC should disallow any petition for a rate hike by the power distributor. Allowing it to jack up its rates would mean continuing injustice to consumers.

An immediate rate reduction is also justifiable considering that the latest COA report questioned the cost assumptions that the ERC used in approving Meralco’s huge 41-centavo hike in its distribution rates last year, which  allowed Meralco to post a 114 percent increase in its 2009 profits.

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Consumer issues, Power industry, Privatization

Rising electricity bill and neoliberal reforms

First published by Bulatlat.com

There’s good news for its close to five million customers to start the New Year, said utility giant Manila Electric Power Co. (Meralco). It claimed that its January billing will go down by 30.5 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh) due to lower generation and transmission charges.

But Meralco did not say that the said reduction is just one side of the story. The other side is that consumers must brace for a new 26.9-centavo increase in Meralco’s distribution charge. On top of this, power users in Luzon and Visayas should also anticipate a hike of P3.38 and P4.71 per kWh, respectively in generation and transmission charges from the National Power Corp. (Napocor).

These increases continue the trend in soaring electricity rates in the country. Some blame it on regulation failure or even regulatory capture. But the deeper issue is the neoliberal restructuring of the power sector that has legitimized these onerous power rate hikes.

Rate hikes

Last December 14, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) allowed Meralco to jack up its distribution charge from P1.2227 to P1.4917 per kWh. The rate hike was based on a formula under the commission’s so-called Performance-Based Regulation (PBR).

It was in fact the second round of increase in Meralco’s distribution charge through the PBR. In April last year, the ERC also let the company hike its rate from P1.0831 to P1.2227 per kWh. Thus, Meralco has raised its distribution charge by 40.86 centavos per kWh or by 37.7 percent in the last eight months.

This easily belies claim by Meralco that the 30.5-centavo drop in generation and transmission charges would offset the hike in its distribution rates. The net effect of its 2009 PBR rate adjustments and the January fall in generation and transmission charges is an increase of almost eight centavos per kWh.

Prior to the latest increase in its distribution charge, Meralco has also raised its metering charge by 9.45 centavos per kWh between December 2008 and December 2009. (During the same period, the distribution charge also increased due to the first PBR. See Table 1)

And there seems no end in sight for the woes of hapless power consumers.

Remember that Napocor too has pending applications before the ERC for rate increases. The most recent, filed last December 28, seeks to hike generation and transmission charges by P1.7033 per kWh in Luzon; P1.3545 in the Visayas; and 22.54 centavos in Mindanao. These applications fall under the so-called 14th Incremental Currency Exchange Rate Adjustment (ICERA) and 15th Generation Rate Adjustment Mechanism (GRAM).

The ERC has yet to decide on two previous ICERA (12th and 13th) and GRAM (13th and 14th) applications by Napocor. If approved, customers in Luzon will bear a total increase of P3.3811 while those in the Visayas, P4.7134 per kWh. Mindanao consumers, on the other hand, will see a reduction of P1.0977 per kWh. Napocor explained that 90 percent of Mindanao’s power supply is generated by cheaper hydro-power, thus the rate reduction. (See Table 2)

GRAM and ICERA are cost recovery mechanisms to make the power sector attractive to private investors. GRAM replaced the notorious purchased power adjustment (PPA). But the principle remains the same. Consumers bear all the risks associated with the operation of power plants including fuel costs and foreign exchange fluctuations.

“Good utility performance”   

Some critics argue that unreasonable power rates are due to regulators’ failure to implement the law. They say that the ERC does not follow the intent of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001. There is a need to clarify this.

The problem is Epira itself. While couched with pro-consumer intensions, the law in reality aims to create the most conducive environment for private capital.

Epira created the ERC as an independent, quasi-judicial body. Among its key functions is to determine the distribution rates of utilities like Meralco. As to the methodology, Epira lets ERC to use any form as long as it is internationally accepted. As to the rates, the law said it must allow Meralco and others to “operate viably”. (Epira, Chapter IV Section 43 – f)

Based on this provision, the ERC is using the PBR to determine the rates that Meralco and others can charge. The PBR was chosen by design. Consistent with the neoliberal agenda of Epira, it makes rates setting more market-based and reduces regulatory oversight. It adheres to the principle that “good utility performance should lead to higher profits”. (Biewald et al: 1997)

But this raises a fundamental question. What exactly is good utility performance? For a private company, good performance means high profits. For consumers, it means reliable service at the most reasonable rates. The law, however, is clear. The bottom line is the commercial viability of private utilities.

Thus, despite unresolved consumer concerns on the reasonable-ness of power rates, Meralco still got away with another rate hike. Onerous charges and taxes like the value added tax (VAT) including on unused electricity remain. Consumers continue to shoulder the costs of Napocor’s onerous contracts with independent power producers (IPPs).

Milking customers dry

Worse, Meralco does not even need a rate hike to remain viable or profitable. It has been earning way beyond what it should at the expense of consumers. From 1987 to 2007, for instance, Meralco earned a total return of P39.28 billion. Its total paid-up capital during the period meanwhile was only P441.6 million. (Nasecore: 2009)

What do these figures mean? They show that from 1987 to 2007, Meralco’s annual rate of return was a whopping 423 percent. It is scandalous to say the least. The acceptable level of rate of return is only 12 percent for public utilities. (Supreme Court: 2002)

Meralco owners have been milking customers dry throughout the years. Yet customers are today forced to shell out more money not only to finance Meralco’s operations. They are also asked to pay more so Meralco owners can increase their already outrageous profits.

Further, Epira institutionalized private monopoly control over the power sector. Meralco, aside from its captured market in distribution, also has its own IPPs. This allowed the firm to overcharge as much as P49.56 billion from June 2003 to June 2006. The amount represents the difference between the generation rates of Napocor IPPs and Meralco IPPs. (Nasecore: 2009)

Indeed, its customers have not only long paid whatever increases in rates that Meralco is asking for. It is Meralco that owes consumers. Until today, it has not even completed the past refunds ordered by the Supreme Court and ERC worth more than P34.12 billion.

Towards lower power cost

The power sector certainly needs restructuring. But such reforms must be within the framework of nationalization and effective people’s control. To pave the way for these reforms, Epira must be repealed.

In the immediate, the courts and ERC must be pressured to issue a restraining order on approved rate hikes. Pending petitions should also be strongly opposed. Current rate setting methodology must be reviewed to capture the more important public interest. To do this, the review process must be democratic and participatory.

At the same time, concrete measures to bring down the cost of electricity must be implemented now. These include some policy proposals long pushed by consumers and advocacy groups, to wit:

(1)   Scrap the VAT on power and oil;

(2)   Refund to customers all illegal collections by Meralco, other distribution utilities, and Napocor;

(3)   Stop the imposition of questionable charges like system loss, which is partly associated with a firm’s inefficiency;

(4)   Cancel onerous IPP contracts to liberate consumers from paying unused electricity;

(5)   Credible and thorough audit of financial records of Napocor, Meralco, and other players in the power sector (i.e. COA plus a parallel audit by consumer groups, independent experts, etc)

References:

  1. Nasecore, FOVA, FOLVA vs. Meralco, Reply to Meralco’s Comment (With Urgent Prayer To Grant Restraining or Status Quo Order, Court of Appeals, Special Fourteenth Division, CA-GR SP No. 108663, September 22, 2009
  2. Republic vs. Manila Electric Co., GR No. 141314, 391 SCRA 700, 708, November 15, 2002
  3. Beiwald, Bruce et al (1997). “Performance-Based Regulation in a Restructured Electricity Industry”, Prepared for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Cambridge, MA, November 8, 1997
  4. “Plug power rate hike loophole”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 1, 2010, http://nasecore.org/pr_010210.php
  5. “Meralco income to rise due to 2-step gov’t favor”, Malaya, January 6, 2010, http://www.malaya.com.ph/01062010/busi1.html
  6. “Napocor seeking increase in generation rates nationwide”, GMANews.TV, January 8, 2010, http://www.gmanews.tv/story/181077/napocor-seeking-increase-in-generation-rates-nationwide
  7. “Meralco cuts rates”, The Philippine Star, January 9, 2010, http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=539261&publicationSubCategoryId=63
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