By Adam J. Ang

PRESSED with mounting complaints about the apparent surge in its present electricity charges, Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) said it has “strictly” followed government regulations on computing its customers’ bills.

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian on Monday reminded the distribution utility giant of its mandate to follow the advisories sent out by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) for the computation of customers’ electricity bills incurred during the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) from March to May, as well as the prescribed due dates.

Responding to this, Meralco Vice President and Utility Economics Head Lawrence S. Fernandez said: “Meralco strictly complied with ERC Advisories and relevant regulations.”

Sen. Gatchalian said the complaints arose from Meralco’s “confusing” electricity bill. “Meralco has failed to provide Filipinos a clearer and justified explanation on why bills have gone up so high,” he added.

But Meralco already issued its explanation on customers’ bill shock last week, saying that the May bill is the result of the actual electricity consumption in kilowatt-hours (kWh) from the current meter reading, plus the estimated consumption reflected in the deferred April and March bills.

“This total, which is already based on the true and actual readings, is what customers actually see in the May bill. That is why you may notice a rise in the total amount due,” the company said.

The ERC has ordered power utilities to provide a staggered payment scheme to their customers for paying their deferred bills since March. These can be paid in four installments in the next four billing months after the ECQ, along with the payment of their current bills.

The commission on May 5 also ordered the distribution utilities and electric cooperatives to further extend the grace period that they earlier provided to consumers in areas under ECQ.

Should there be an overestimation in a customer’s bill for this month, the customer can choose which billing month it would want the overpaid amount to be later credited, Meralco Senior Vice President and Legal Head William S. Pamintuan said.

“Any overpayment made by a customer will be immediately refunded or credited to his succeeding months consumption at the customer’s option,” he said in a Viber message.

“Our bill also clearly provided that customers can pay their March and April rendered bills during the ECQ in 4 monthly installments as provided in the ERC Advisories,” he added.

On top of bills complaints, Meralco has also received the Department of Energy’s (DoE) letter asking the company to explain the additional P47 fee that customers have to pay while settling their dues through its own mobile app.

“Meralco is supposed to obtain authority from the government to do something like this. Apparently, your offices are justifying that you do not need to go through the Government because this fee collection does not go to Meralco — that it goes to your app service provider,” the letter dated May 14 read.

The DoE said the transaction fee raises the electricity cost for consumers, “a clear deviation to all the government efforts to bring down the cost of utilities, especially during these difficult times.”

But Mr. Pamintuan said the online fees are charged by online payment services provider to those using their platforms to pay their bills and are not remitted to the company.

“These online fees are not Meralco’s fees but are the fees charged by online payment services provider to those using their platform or system to transact online payments for their convenience,” he said.

Meralco has yet to submit its reply to the DoE, Mr. Fernandez said.

The ERC on Monday ordered the distribution utility to explain its basis of its determination of the kilowatt-hour consumption of its customers during the ECQ.

Moreover, it is also seeking the company’s power bills from suppliers which were reflected in its computation of generation rate, as well as its invoices from the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) for the computation of its transmission rate and its uniform reportorial requirement for the billing periods.

This coming Friday, the complaints on alleged increases in Meralco electricity bills will also be the subject of the Joint Congressional Energy Commission hearing on the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in the Philippine power sector.

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 interest in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls.