By Adam J. Ang

MANILA Electric Co. (Meralco) will be issuing refunds to customers who wanted to pay their bills incurred during the lockdown period in installments but have already paid these in full last month.

The power utility giant was further grilled by legislators during the Senate energy committee hearing on Monday about the mounting complaints on its “confusing” electricity bills since the lockdown started.

Sa mga nagbayad in-full ng kanilang mga bills, bagamat sila ay entitled sa installment plans, mayroon din kaming advisory na kung nagbayad kayo at gusto ninyo ng installment plan, ire-refund ng Meralco lahat ng binayad ninyo at makakatanggap kayo ng installment letters para i-itemized ang installment plan ninyo,” Meralco President and Chief Executive Officer Ray C. Espinosa told senators.

(We have stated in an advisory that if you have fully paid your bills but you intend to pay in installments, Meralco will be refunding your payment. You will later receive a letter specifying your installment plan.)

The apparent confusion on last month’s twin bills showing the installment plan and the actual June bill may have pushed consumers to fully settle their accrued bills between March and May by end-June, which is actually the due date for last month’s bill.

Nakalagay sa June bill ng Meralco na hindi na ito kasama sa installment plan na pinapayagan ng pamahalaan, kaya dapat daw fully paid na by June 30. Hindi rin malinaw kung estimate amount lang ‘yung chinarge nila from February to April, or actual meter reading na siya,” Sen. Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel said.

(Based on Meralco, the June bill is no longer covered in the installment plan as mandated by the government, that’s why it was taken as if consumers have to pay their unpaid bills by June 30. It was not also clear if the bill is the estimated amount between February and April or the amount from actual meter reading of consumption.)

In June, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) filed a show-cause order to the listed utility for its alleged violation of the regulator’s advisories during the quarantine period. Among others, it was accused of supposedly breaching its rules on estimated billing.

Sen. Sherwin T. Gatchalian, who chairs the Senate energy committee, urged the regulator to order the refund of payments for those customers whose bills will be found overestimated.

In its May 22 advisory, the ERC ordered the staggered payment of bills during the lockdown period. For customers with 200 kilowatt-hours of consumption and below in February, they are allowed to pay their bills in six portions, while those with 201 kilowatt-hours and above will have to settle their bills in four installments.

The installment bills are supposed to be paid every 15th day of the month.

Further, Meralco vowed to clarify anew how it came up with customers’ bills in the past four months by sending out personal clarificatory letters this July.

“I believe there has been basically a failure on our part to clarify to our customers what is actual and what is estimated. For that, I wish to apologize to you and to all similarly situated customers,” Mr. Espinosa said.

“It is not Meralco’s business to charge customers beyond what they consume,” he added.

The letter is particular for power users whose meters were read in May but whose bills contain a “previous reading” that is based on estimated consumption in March and/or April.

Meanwhile, Mr. Espinosa promised to waive the P47-convenience charge levied to customers paying their bills online during both the enhanced community quarantine and the latter general quarantine phase.

These additional fees, according to Meralco, are charged by PayMaya, its sister company, and are not remitted to the utility company.

Mr. Gatchalian also ordered the ERC to investigate electric utilities across the country that may not be complying with its advisories, especially on the suspension of the collection of some components of the electricity bill.

In his presentation, the Senate energy committee head cited some electric cooperatives that have been charging universal charges for environmental charge, the collection of which was suspended in the June billing month, and feed-in-tariff allowances, which were not supposed to be collected between March and April.

When asked about this, ERC Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer Agnes VST Devanadera said: “Marami pong nag-violate dito. At ‘yan ang basis namin ng pag-issue ng show-cause orders sa [mga] distribution utilities at electric cooperatives.”

(Many have violated these directives, and this is our basis for issuing show-cause orders to them.)

The ERC, which reported to be handling over 47,000 consumer complaints, asked Mr. Gatchalian to give it more time in addressing various power utility issues.

“I really have to ask [for] your patience because right now we are also organizing our people to be able to respond to the 47,000 [complaints],” Ms. Devanadera said.

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.