Meralco rate hikes, prepaid electricity and neoliberal “users pay”

2014_02_10_16_21_46
Photo from GMA News Online

First published as IBON Features

The February rate hike of Php0.92 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) that the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) announced is actually just the initial strike. In March, the unfortunate public should expect an even stronger blow from the utility giant as another rate hike of as much as Php1.44 per kWh looms.

Meralco has a simple solution for consumers who find it hard to cope with their ever-increasing monthly electricity bills. Go prepaid and supposedly save up to 20% in consumption. About 40,000 customers are already using Meralco’s prepaid system called Kuryente Load (KLoad). By yearend, Meralco expects to add 100,000 more.

But the basic question is – how can customers save amid the staggering rate increases? The answer is – they can’t. But with prepaid electricity, as the Energy Department once said, consumers will “not unnecessarily spend for what they cannot afford”. Put another way – If you can’t afford electricity, then don’t use it.

Indeed, looking past Meralco’s dodgy claim, KLoad is nothing more than the worst form of the neoliberal tenet “users pay”. It merely passes on the burden of high power rates further to the consumers. It also deepens the exclusion of the poor from access to electricity as a basic service and their right to decent living.

How it works

KLoad was pilot tested in 2013 and commercially rolled out in 2015. To use it, a customer must have Meralco’s “intelligent” meter installed first and register a mobile number for the account. Through SMS (‘text’) using the registered mobile number, the user can load KLoad cards worth as low as Php100 and as high as Php1,000.

The user will receive a text message confirming that the amount has been loaded successfully to his or her account. KLoad also lets users receive text notifications on the account’s remaining balance, low load reminder, and rate adjustments. Like prepaid cards for mobile, KLoad cards can be bought even at retail stores.

For Filipinos who have long been accustomed to prepaid mobile service, KLoad is pretty easy to grasp. In fact, it is this familiarity with and preference for prepaid mobile that Meralco banks on for its KLoad. Saddled with tight budget, most Filipinos use prepaid mobile to control spending.

Lack of a steady income, in fact, forces many to buy in tingi not just mobile credits but most of their daily needs – from shampoo to 3-in-1 coffee. The same concept supposedly applies to prepaid electricity.

The problem is it’s not quite the case.

Rising power rates

Under the KLoad system, retail rates will be the same as the effective postpaid rate at the particular month the load was consumed. Unconsumed credits in a given month will be charged with prevailing rates in the following month.

Unlike in prepaid mobile and other consumer goods where charges are more or less predictable, electricity rates vary monthly (often upwards). The reason is deregulation under the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001 (Epira), which allows automatic adjustments in the generation charge and other periodic adjustments.

The fluctuating rates make it difficult for a household to effectively monitor and regulate their consumption, and accordingly plan their use of electricity based on prepaid credits.

But far more crucially, the ever-increasing power rates will offset efforts by a household to cut their electricity bill even when they shift to KLoad. No matter how much kilowatt-hour that a household tries to reduce in their consumption, the end result is still an exorbitant electricity bill.

Meralco’s own commissioned survey in 2016 shows that its rates are the third highest in Asia. An average Meralco customer is also paying 4.5% of their disposable income for electricity, higher than the global average of 3.9 percent.

Aside from deregulating rates, Epira also privatized the country’s power plants. In Luzon where Meralco operates, just three groups (i.e., San Miguel, Lopez, and Aboitiz) control 70% of power generation. Such tremendous control makes alleged collusion and price rigging easier like during power plant shutdowns that lead to rate spikes.

The whopping rate hike of up to Php1.44 per kWh that Meralco advised its customers to expect in March, for instance, is due to Malampaya maintenance shutdown from 28 January to 16 February. Other power plants will also be on maintenance shutdown on 13-17 February, placing more pressure on power supply and rates.

Anti-consumer, anti-poor

Instead of addressing these policy issues, the onus of coping with rising electricity costs is further passed on to hapless consumers under the prepaid system. With KLoad, no prepaid credits, no electricity. Disconnection is automatic, done remotely by Meralco. It’s that straightforward and heartless.

Through remote and automatic disconnection when credits run out, KLoad violates the rights of Meralco customers as outlined in the Magna Carta for Residential Electricity Consumers. These rights include the right to due process and notice prior to disconnection and suspension of disconnection.

Prepaid customers are supposed to be notified via text three days before the remaining load is estimated to run out. The warning shall be based on the average consumption of the household. But what if the household used more electricity than their average consumption and depleted the load in two days instead of three?

KLoad primarily targets poor communities where collection of monthly bill is problematic and illegal connection is prevalent. A prepaid system for these households ensures that bills are paid to and collected by Meralco. As explained by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), prepaid electricity reduces pilferage and improves collection efficiency and cash flow for distribution utilities.

Meralco has an existing partnership with the National Housing Authority (NHA) to provide KLoad service to urban poor families resettled from waterways and danger areas in Metro Manila. Recently, in a Tondo slum, Meralco installed KLoad for former Smokey Mountain residents.

Notably, prepaid system is among the supposed best approaches to slum electrification that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) endorsed in its 2004 study that also included Meralco as one of the cases.

Affront to decent living

KLoad is part of the long-term plan of Meralco to install the so-called Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) – an integrated system of intelligent meters – in its franchise area. The AMI will allow Meralco to, among others, remotely switch on and off the supply of electricity not only to prepaid customers but also those with regular connection.

Access to electricity is needed to achieve the minimum standard of decent living. Thus, it should not be contingent upon the ability of people to pay and must be a basic right guaranteed by the state. KLoad and Meralco’s remote and automatic disconnection system is a blatant affront to this right.

KLoad will set a worrisome precedent if not questioned and opposed. It is prepaid electricity today. Prepaid water soon? ###

Also read “Prepaid electricity, anyone?” and other articles on the Philippine power industry

Heartless, greedy Meralco thrives under privatized, deregulated regime

meralco ganid

With the country still reeling from the devastation wrought by Yolanda, the people are facing yet another disaster – the calamity of soaring prices. People ask: Are the oil companies and Meralco (Manila Electric Co.) that heartless and greedy?

Alas, this is the cruel reality of neoliberal economics, of deregulation and privatization. The market is regarded as greater than the people, and government allows the heartless and greedy to reign.

Price hikes

Starting December, oil firms implemented a record-high increase in LPG prices. Petron hiked its LPG price by P14.30 per kilogram (kg); Liquigaz, P13; and Solane, P11. These translate to an increase of P121 to P157 for an 11-kg LPG tank commonly used by households.

Then the oil companies jacked up the price of other petroleum products. Diesel rose by P1.35 per liter; kerosene, P1.20; and gasoline, P0.35. This week, oil firms implemented another round of oil price hikes with diesel rising by 30 centavos. Prior to the latest increases, the price of diesel has already jumped by P4.08 per liter this year and gasoline by P2.04, based on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) monitoring.

And of course, Meralco said that it will implement a hefty increase in power rates this month. The distribution utility said that the hike in its generation charge could reach P3.44 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) but it will be implemented in installments to mitigate the impact.

The Energy Regulatory Commissioned (ERC) allowed Meralco to collect the increase in three tranches. That would be P2 in December, P1 in February and P0.44 in March.

But generation is just one component of the electricity bill that will rise. Also increasing is the transmission charge, which will go up by P0.04 per kWh. Taxes (value-added tax and local franchise tax), system loss charge, lifeline rate subsidy and others, which are a percentage of generation and transmission costs, will also add another P0.67 per kWh in the Meralco bill.

Thus, the actual rate hike to be felt by consumers would be P2.41 per kWh in December, P1.21 in February and P0.54 in March.

However, while the sudden impact of a one-time huge rate hike will be mitigated, consumers will end up paying more. According to the ERC, Meralco may charge its customers an interest on the entire deferred amount or the so-called carrying cost.

And even at a staggered basis, the rate hike would still be tremendous. A 200-kWh household, for instance, will see its Meralco bill jump by P482 this month.

The increase in power bill creates a domino effect on the prices of other basic goods and commodities. Contrary to propaganda of government and big business, wages are not the main driver of price hikes but electricity cost. The Employers Confederation of the Philippines (Ecop) said that power accounts for as much as 40% of production cost.  With the big Meralco rate hike, Ecop also warned of higher prices.

‘What can we do?’

The official who is supposed to be in charge over the oil and power sectors – Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla – had this to say to the restless public: “Kung nagkasabay-sabay silang lahat, hindi yan pinlano, it just happened. What can we do…? Don’t buy, kung namamahalan kayo!”

Of course, Meralco’s customers could not choose not to buy electricity from Meralco. They have no choice. Petilla’s remarks sum up government’s indifference to the plight of consumers, which the Aquino administration has repeatedly displayed in its almost four years in power.

By themselves, the record increases in petroleum prices and electricity bills are already oppressive. But what makes them doubly onerous is that the country is still recovering from Yolanda’s onslaught. Government has not even fully accounted the total number of dead, which now stands at 5,796, according to the latest official count.

Note that this is not the first time that these same companies displayed total disregard of public interest and welfare. Last year, amid the torrential, Ondoy-like rains that poured over Metro Manila, oil companies and Meralco also increased prices.

Price control

Ironically, the country is supposed to be under a state of national calamity as declared by President Benigno Aquino III through Proclamation No. 682. But the string of record price hikes shows that big business can act with impunity.

The reason is that the price control aspect of the proclamation is limited by law and the overall deregulation policy of government. Under Republic Act (RA) 10623 (which amended RA 7581 or the Price Act), the price of LPG may be controlled under a state of calamity but only for 15 days. The price of LPG and other petroleum products is deregulated under RA 8479 or the Oil Deregulation Law.

Electricity rates are also not included among the basic necessities that government may control during a state of calamity. Through RA 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), government deregulated the setting of the generation charge of Meralco and other distribution utilities. Epira also deregulated rate-setting through the wholesale electricity spot market (Wesm).

To pave the way for the deregulation of the oil and power industries, government privatized Petron Corp. and the National Power Corp. (Napocor).

The Oil Deregulation Law and Epira trump the Price Act and any proclamation of a state of calamity. Apparently for government, not even the strongest typhoon ever recorded could change that. Both policies were imposed on the country by foreign creditors led by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Artificial tightness

The huge Meralco rate hike is a perfect example of how privatization, deregulation and lack of state control over key sectors burden the consumers. Had government not relinquished effective control over energy development to profit-oriented private business, the public would have been spared from the impending hefty increase in power rates.

The supposed tight energy supply is only artificial. It could have been prevented if the maintenance shutdown of the country’s energy sources and power plants were effectively controlled by government. But because it relies too heavily on private business, government has no handle in determining the maintenance schedule of power plants in a way that ensures energy security and public interest.

For instance, the maintenance shutdown of Malampaya started on Nov. 11, the same date that President Aquino put the country under a state of calamity. Energy officials already knew then that it will trigger a big spike in power rates. At that time, energy supply in Luzon was already tight due to a series of maintenance shutdowns of major power plants.

Plant shutdowns

Meralco, in fact, already implemented a large increase in power rates in November when it jacked up its rates by P1.24 per kWh. The utility giant said that the maintenance shutdown of several big power plants was the main factor behind the rate hike. These were Unit 2 of Malaya power plant in Rizal (Dec. 2012 to Oct.); Unit 2 of Pagbilao plant in Quezon (Aug. to Nov.); Unit 1 of Sual plant in Pangasinan (Sep. to Oct.); and Sta. Rita Module 20 (Oct. 23-28).

In addition, a number of power plants were also on forced outage. These were San Lorenzo Module 60 (May to Mar. 16, 2014); Unit 1 of Masinloc plant in Zambales (Sep. 25-28); Unit 2 of Calaca plant in Batangas (Sep. 29 to Oct. 1); Quezon Power (Oct. 5-6); and Unit 1 of Sual plant in Pangasinan (Oct. 22-26).

Monopoly and manipulation

But instead of ensuring that Malampaya will remain online, especially after Yolanda, government stood idly as the source of 40% of Luzon’s power needs was cut off. The shutdown of Malampaya and of the other power plants, said Meralco, forced its suppliers Sta. Rita and San Lorenzo power plants to use more expensive fuel.

The utility giant claimed that it was also compelled to buy more from the Wesm where electricity is being sold at a higher price. Meralco said that its exposure to Wesm will increase from less than 5% to 12% due to the Malampaya shutdown.

Note, however, that the private investors who control Meralco are the same investors that control the power plants as well as the traders in the Wesm. The 1,000-megawatt (MW) Sta. Rita and the 500-MW San Lorenzo plants are owned by the Lopez group, which also has a 3.9%-stake in Meralco. Power plants associated with the Lopez group also account for around 18% of the capacity registered at Wesm.

Illegitimacy of rate hikes

The concentration of ownership over power generation and distribution, and even over the spot market, raises a valid question on the legitimacy of the power rate hikes. The same thing can be said in the case of the oil industry wherein basically just four companies lord over more than 80% of the industry.

Thus, the move of the House of Representatives to investigate Meralco’s rate hike is a welcome development. Officials of the distribution utility, the power plants, and also the DOE should explain the circumstances behind the huge increase.

There is certainly a need to closely look at the shutdown of Malampaya and the power plants as well to determine if the big power investors are abusing the public through their unhampered control over the energy sector.

But more importantly, policy makers must reconsider government’s energy development program that is hinged on deregulation and privatization. Even without a super-calamity like Yolanda, neoliberal policies like Epira and the Oil Deregulation Law are already greatly oppressing the public. ###

Read more about Epira and the Philippine power industry here and Oil Deregulation Law here

 

Sona and high prices

Issues that matter to ordinary folks such as how Meralco and other big companies owned by Aquino’s super-rich relatives and friends are oppressing the people with skyrocketing fees were left unarticulated in the Sona (Photo from Pinoy Weekly)

The third State of the Nation Address (Sona) of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III lasted 1 hour and 39 minutes. It was his longest Sona so far. But the 8,890-word speech never made reference to the perennial problem of consumers – the ever rising costs of electricity, petroleum, water and other basic goods and services. In fact, the issue of high prices and what his administration plans to do to address it has never been a topic in Aquino’s annual Sona.

Read the full transcript of Sona here and the English translation here

The non-mention of the problem of high prices was made more conspicuous by the almost simultaneous increases in electricity rates, water rates and oil prices just days before the Sona. The Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), the country’s largest power distributor, hiked its distribution charge by 29.1 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and its generation charge by 32 centavos; private water concessionaires Manila Water Co. and Maynilad Water Services Inc. increased their rates by 39 centavos and 89 centavos per cubic meter, respectively. Oil companies, meanwhile, have increased the pump price of unleaded gasoline by ₱4.35 per liter and diesel by ₱3.10 after three straight weeks of price hikes this month, including the latest round hours after Sona.

Costs have been unjustly increasing since long ago due to programs initiated by Aquino’s predecessors, namely the deregulation of the oil industry in 1996-1998 and the privatization of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) in 1997 under former Pres. Fidel Ramos, and the privatization of the National Power Corp. (Napocor) in 2001 under Mrs. Gloria Arroyo.

However, Aquino is still accountable for continuing these programs and not even bothering to at least review them despite their harmful impact on consumers. In fact, the President even made these programs the centerpiece of his development plan such as the public-private partnership (PPP) scheme.

And if you were wondering why the triple whammy of power, water and oil price hikes did not merit even a single sentence in Aquino’s Sona, or why addressing the issue of high prices has never been an agenda of the President, for that matter, this previous post might help enlighten you.

Indeed, the families running the country’s largest utilities and burdening the consumers with exorbitant prices are among the closest allies and long-time cronies of the Aquino clan. Petron, the biggest oil firm in the Philippines, is majority-owned by San Miguel Corp. (SMC) of Aquino’s maternal uncle Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. while the Ayalas are connected with Pilipinas Shell; Meralco is controlled by SMC, the Lopezes and Manny V. Pangilinan’s group; and Manila Water is controlled by the Ayalas while Maynilad is co-owned by Pangilinan and the Consunjis.

Aquino’s longest Sona yet mentioned many indicators to highlight the supposedly improving economy such as credit rating upgrade, stock exchange performance, and growth in the gross domestic product (GDP), among others. But these indicators are not only abstract for the ordinary folks; they also do not mean increased economic opportunities. They are, however, indicators of how big business is enjoying a favorable environment under Aquino, reaping whatever little wealth is being squeezed from the pre-industrial economy.

Meanwhile, the issues that matter to us such as how Meralco, Petron, Shell Maynilad, Manila Water and other big companies owned by Aquino’s super-rich relatives and friends are oppressing us with skyrocketing prices and rates were left unarticulated by the landlord President.