A MAN seen at fruit stand just beside electric wires at Kapalaran St. in Brgy. Commonwealth in Quezon City last February 5. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

DISTRIBUTION utilities (DUs) must implement a “no-disconnection policy” for poor electricity consumers whose unpaid obligations must be settled by March this year, the Department of Energy said in an advisory posted on its website on Saturday.

“All DUs are hereby directed to implement a no-disconnection policy due to non-payment of bills falling due by March 2021 for all electricity consumers whose consumption level are within the lifeline rate set by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) for the DUs franchise area,” the department said.

“This shall apply to all unpaid regular bills and installment payments relative to various advisories of the DoE and ERC,” it added.

The one-page advisory, which was signed by DoE Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi on Friday, did not give details on how many months the no-disconnection policy would run for.

The advisory comes days after President Rodrigo R. Duterte expressed his support for the DoE’s recommendation to extend the “no-disconnection policy” for poor power consumers during a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, according to Cabinet Secretary Karlo Alexei B. Nograles.

In its advisory, the DoE said that all power consumers — both lifeline and non-lifeline — who still cannot pay their bills may “enter into socially equitable and manageable payment terms to prevent eventual disconnection of electricity services.”

Meanwhile, the DoE encouraged consumers who have the capability to pay to settle their bills within their original due dates “to help in managing the flow of cash in the energy supply chain, and ensure a continuous supply of electricity.”

The DoE also directed all DUs to post the advisory in their respective websites and consumer welfare desks.

Last month, Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) said that it had started giving disconnection notices to customers who were falling behind their payments.

Meralco Vice-President and Head of Corporate Communications Joe R. Zaldarriaga previously said that the firm had asked households consuming 201 kilowatt-hours (kWh) or more to settle their obligations in January, while giving those consuming 200 kWh and below until the end of the month to pay.

Meralco’s no-disconnection policy that covered typical households that consumed less than 200 kWh was due to end on Dec. 31, but was extended until the end of January.

On Thursday, Philippine Rural Electric Cooperatives Association (Philreca) said that the prolonged extension of the no disconnection policy “would disrupt the flow of money in the energy supply chain, and that its effects would extend to outside the power sector.”

“There will be a huge implication in the financial stability of all stakeholders in the energy supply chain should a prolonged ‘no disconnection policy’ is imposed by the government. And this disruption — bear in mind — is not just going to affect the energy sector. If electricity consumers default on their utility bills payments, then, the distribution utilities will eventually default as well to its power suppliers,” said Presley C. De Jesus, Philreca president and party-list representative in an e-mailed statement.

He added that the prolonged policy would also affect electric cooperatives, which are “non-profit by nature as they did not have a huge capital to support their operations during the global health emergency, unlike other utilities.”

Meralco’s controlling stakeholder, Beacon Electric Asset Holdings, Inc., is partly owned by PLDT, Inc. Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has an interest in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls. — Angelica Y. Yang