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ERC to extend bill payment moratorium for poor households

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Rickshaws block a street from outsiders to protect a neighborhood from the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Manila, March 24. -- REUTERS

THE Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) will order power utilities to further extend the moratorium on bill payments for poor households in areas that continue to be under lockdown.

ERC Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer Agnes VST Devanadera said the commission will issue a new advisory that will extend the payment moratorium up to six months for households that consume 200 kilowatts per hour (kWh) a month.

“We are extending for this group, we can call them the lifeliners. Now we are extending the payment (moratorium) for six months,” she told senators during a virtual hearing on Thursday.

However, the ERC will maintain the four-month suspension of bill payments for areas that shifted to modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) from ECQ.

“In the advisory we are issuing, the four months will remain to be applicable to all as we have issued in our previous advisory,” Ms. Devanadera added.

She said the ERC decided against lifting the suspension after finding little difference in the situation of consumers under ECQ and MECQ.

“Under both situations there are no access to public transportation, so in the mind of the Commission, the daily wage earners, the informal sector, still are not able to be gainfully employed,” she said.

Ms. Devanadera was speaking before the Committee on Trade, Commerce and Entrepreneurship, tackling Senate Bill No. 1473, the “Three-Gives Law,” which will institutionalize a moratorium on the payment of bills during a state of calamity.

The bill will protect consumers from disconnection of service due to the nonpayment of electricity, water and telephone bills for the duration of the state of calamity.

Under the measure, billing may later be settled in three equal installments. It will also impose a P1-million fine per infraction committed by the public utility franchise holder or the service provider.

The ERC chief backed the measure, but noted the law should specify the type of calamity and its duration that will trigger the automatic moratorium.

“For example, the typhoon lasted only three days, flooding lasted for four days, will it automatically be availed of?” Ms. Devanadera said.

The National Electrification Administration (NEA), Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and the Philippine Chamber of Telecommunications Operators (PCTO) also supported the measure, but asked the Senate committee to consider the effect on businesses.

NEA Deputy Administrator Rossan Rosero-Lee said the suspension of bill payments will affect the financial position of electric cooperatives (co-ops), which are nonstock and nonprofit.

“’Yung ating electric cooperatives talagang tatamaan, on the average 19-20 typhoons ang bumibisita sa bansa, aside from volcanic eruption… Apektado din ang pagbayad ng power suppliers and other loan obligations that electric co-ops are paying on a monthly basis,” Ms. Lee said in the same hearing.

Ms. Lee suggested that the committee provide for a corresponding reprieve on the payment to independent power producers, new power providers, among other suppliers.

For water utilities, MWSS Chief Regulator Lester N. Ty noted they have implemented a similar measure but with targeted beneficiaries.

“Instead of a blanket three months for all customers, we decided to do a targeted one. We decided to give a three-month payment term to lifeline account holders,” Mr. Ty said.

“The reason behind this is we want it to be targeted and we don’t want to unduly hamper the operation of Manila Water and Maynilad (Water Services, Inc.) because of their cash flow.”

The telecommunications industry, as represented by the PCTO, also asked the panel to strike the right balance between public and private interests.

“For prolonged calamities, it will be difficult for telcos to only begin collecting a month after the end of the calamity,” PCTO Vice-President Roy Cecil D. Ibay said.

He pointed out that telecommunications firms are also at the forefront of calamity response through free mobile disaster alerts and providing access to emergency hotlines, among others. — Charmaine A. Tadalan





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