Groups push ‘overdue’ review of Epira 18 years after, cite high-power costs

By Lenie Lectura -December 10, 2019
from Business Mirror

Workers connect electricity cables to a transmission pole. (Bloomberg)

CONSUMER advocate Power for People Coalition on Monday urged the government to review the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), citing unaffordable electricity in the country 18 years after the law took effect.

Gerry Arances, convenor of the Power for People Coalition, said Epira is “in dire need of a review” because its goal, which is to achieve reliable and competitively priced electricity, has yet to happen.

“We urge the government to own up to the consequences of its bid to cut spending by handing over to private corporations its duty of ensuring the country’s electricity supply,” said Arances.

“When consumers are unable to pay their electricity bill because it is too costly to afford, it is not their supply that should be cut off but the monopolizing power of private players,” he added.

By reviewing Epira, our government can hold power corporations accountable for abusive practices, and can also instead pass into law policies that would transform the energy industry into a pro-consumer sector,” he said.

P4P and other consumer groups also protested the “onerous set up in the generation and distribution of electricity in the country.”

“We find the government’s recent call out against abuses by water firms to be agreeable, but as electricity consumers, we demand that the same accountability be asked of power players who have long been benefiting from an energy sector whose rules have been protecting their, and not the public’s, interest,” said Arances.

The coal factor

A spokesman of progressive women’s group Oriang, meanwhile, commented that coal and other fossil fuels dominate the country’s power mix not because these are the best option for consumers, but because contracts for these fuels are most profitable for private power companies.

“Even as government officials such as the President mutter promises of tapping into cleaner energy sources, even as the impacts to cost, health, and climate of the burning of fossil fuels become ever more apparent and vicious towards Filipinos, they find their promises hard to keep because the government handles neither the generation nor distribution of power,” she said.

Zeena Manglinong, executive director of the Freedom from Debt Coalition, said the privatization of power generation and distribution businesses allowed power players to also act as their own policy-makers.

“In the same way that private water firms have demanded for payment for their losses caused by denied price hikes even in the midst of their failure this year to supply Metro Manila consumers with adequate water, the numerous red and yellow alerts and rotational brownouts in 2019 did not stop power companies, such as Meralco from raising electricity prices,” Manglinong said.

Meanwhile, the coordinating council member of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ), commented that more and more Filipinos could not afford basic needs, such as water and electricity. “Costly electricity and other utility bills are taking away an important part of our culture,” she said.

The groups said Epira “made this happen,” that’s why it needs to be reviewed.

Gatchalian: where’s efficiency?

Senate Committee on Energy Chairman Sherwin T. Gatchalian, meanwhile, noted that there are debates going on whether electricity prices in the country have indeed gone down to a level that most Filipinos can afford.

“Epira is supposed to make the market efficient, among others. When it comes to spot market prices, the lowering of cost has been achieved. But that is only a small component,” said Gatchalian.

Consumer group Laban Konsyumer Inc. (LKI) also noted that consumers continue to pay a number of subsidies, such as lifeline rates, system loss and universal charges, among others. “Interlocking ownerships in power generation and distribution companies continue to limit the effectiveness of the spot market, the bright spot of the Epira” making up for all its limitations.

“We still have one of the highest electricity rates. Attention and care for consumer welfare and protection was not developed for the past years,” asserted LKI President Victor Dimagiba.

Meralco, meanwhile, commented that  Epira has encouraged competition, especially in the power-generation business. The law, said company Vice President Joe Zaldarriaga, also increased efficiencies in distribution, as evidenced by all-time low system-loss levels. “If we look at it, further current retail rates approximate that of around eight years back, which, perhaps, shows that the market is working as it is,” he said.