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Voices of dissent in Iloilo City’s grueling brownouts

By Myrna M. Velasco

This year was held on to by the consumers in Iloilo City as a turning point in the provision of their electricity service – they have been promised with “more light” – but then, ouch — darkness came!

And in the ensuing months, it was like “a long summer of discontent” when the recurring brownouts from February to July persistently made a mess on their quality of life and had in parallel been taking toll on businesses in that bustling metropolis.

Harking back to March 5, 2020, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) allowed through a provisional certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) what has been regarded as forcible takeover of power distribution in Iloilo City – a public utility service catering to more than 65,000 customers that are a good mix of residential, commercial, industrial and institutional end-users.

Changeover came as a result. Newly-minted distribution utility MORE Electric Power Corporation became the power service provider in the city, and that impelled vicious gain of control on the assets and facilities owned by Panay Electric Company (PECO), the former power distributor in the area that has been denied with a franchise by Congress.

MORE Power, conversely, was granted its 25-year franchise under Republic Act 11212 that was signed into law in February 2019. Conspicuously though, it does not have existing physical assets to carry out its power distribution mandate; hence, it invoked a provision in its franchise that warranted takeover of the assets of the precursor power utility in the area.

Regulatory imprimatur

When the CPCN for MORE Power was issued, ERC Chairperson Agnes T. Devanadera declared, “The Commission issued the provisional authority to protect consumers’ interest by ensuring uninterrupted electric service in Iloilo City and prevent chaos and confusion among said customers as to who is authorized to operate the distribution system in the area.”

She justified that the action of the Commission leans on the writ of possession that MORE Power has submitted, and that was anchored on the February 27, 2020 ruling of Branch 23 of Iloilo City regional trial court allowing the company “to take possession of certain properties of PECO in connection with the latter’s business of electric power distribution,” adding that “ a copy of the sheriff’s return dated March 2, 2020 to inform the latter that the writ of possession has been duly served and fully implemented.”

Relative to the provisional license issuance on March 5, the ERC chief also substantiated that the ERC carried out ocular inspection at the Iloilo power utility on March 3-4 “to verify the status of the distribution network and to determine who is actually operating the said system,” and the regulatory body actually vouched of MORE Power’s readiness then to take over power distribution in the city.

But then there are nagging questions disturbing even in the minds of the well- entrenched players in the industry: how come that in the case of MORE Power, with the ink of the pen barely dry and just a day after an ocular inspection, the ERC was able to render a major decision affecting tens of thousands of consumers; whereas for other power utilities, they have to wait for 2-4 years on rulings or decisions on their respective applications or pleadings?

And in the legal sense of the proceedings, there is also that question from the counsel of PECO why until now, the company wasn’t shown the ocular inspection report which was the basis of the power utility’s takeover – since at the very least that shall evince semblance of due process being upheld in the case.

The torment of brownouts

Brownouts, as regarded by many, could be the lowest form of human suffering and it could strip people of their dignity when basic facets of their daily existence are adversely affected – and this is critically important as the country wades through the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic.

Think of the many things that uninterrupted electricity service could offer when people who are on lockdown are counting on it for comfort in their homes; for hospitals and medical facilities to continually serve the sick and save the dying; then for the children to seamlessly tend to their education based on the blended learning approach prescribed by the Department of Education (DepEd) – in which online learning shall be a key component of the hybrid system of education that prevails while the health plague still lingers.

Going back to the statement of the ERC Chair, her message on the power utility takeover was clear: “To protect consumers’ interest by ensuring uninterrupted electric service in Iloilo City and prevent chaos and confusion among said customers.”

But then boom! Devanadera’s statement turned out prophetic – haplessly though, it’s the reverse that happened. And the experience of Iloilo consumers as sounded off in various forums (including in City Council deliberations/public hearings) had been the antithesis of what the ERC had envisioned to happen in Iloilo City.

Allen Aquino, coordinator of Koalisyon Bantay Kuryente, put it bluntly that Iloilo already suffered “more than 400 hours of power failure that plunged us into darkness since February up to June,” with him narrating further that “very recently, another series of brownouts, lasting a total of 678 minutes from August 7-11 alone, plunged our city into darkness yet again.”

Aside from the torment of repeated cycles of brownouts, there are also complaints of billing errors as well as alleged overbillings and the interminable confusion on disrupted delivery of bills.

Differing brownout calculations

In a rejoinder with motion for leave to admit that PECO has filed with the ERC this August, it primarily raised the “412 hours of power outages in all the feeders that it (MORE Power) operated from 29 February 2020 to 16 July 2020,” noting that the data were directly extracted from the Facebook posts of MORE Power which served as its advisory to the Iloilo consumers.

MORE Power, for its part, countered the information that PECO has lodged with the industry regulator, with it arguing that “an interruption event at the substation level is only counted as a single event duration;” hence, its total brownouts incidents could have been estimated less.

But PECO took reference on ERC Resolution No. 12 series of 2006, or the policy that sets the guidelines for the monitoring of reliability standards for distribution utilities – and such measures the brownout incidents that power utility firms could cause on their network and inflict on their consumers.

In the calculations of the system average interruption duration index (SAIDI) and system average interruption frequency index (SAIFI), which gauge the total number of customers experiencing sustained interruption per event during specified period, PECO pointed out that based on the prescription of Rule 12 of the ERC, a substation-level power outage must not be counted as a single event, instead the count shall be done per feeder that was affected.

In particular, for the April 21, 2020 brownouts that had been among the most overwhelming power service disruption that happened, PECO indicated that it counted “16 unique interruptions because there were feeders affected – with each feeder having its own set of customers served.”

It further explained that “each feeder had to be taken into account separately since the restoration of power was on a per feeder basis, not for the entire substation.”

PECO emphasized that if the ‘single count per substation of power interruption’ argument of MORE Power will be upheld, then it shall be uniformly applied to all power utilities operating nationwide– even for PECO, which noted that in its comparative year of operation from March to July last year, it logged lower SAIFI of 1.25 versus MORE Power’s 7.57 hours; and SAIDI of just 62.39 as against MORE Power’s 408.22 hours.

“The computation would reveal that PECO’s SAIDI and SAIFI figures are tremendously lower as compared to MORE’s figures from 29 February 2020 to 16 July 2020,” PECO reiterated.

Beyond the complaints of persistent brownouts, there are also livid questions on the technical competence of MORE Power on the assumption of its corporate mandate as a power distributor.

PECO raised with the ERC that it primarily questioned the failure of the technical team of MORE Power in re-energizing feeder lines during a June 20 power outage at the Mandurriao substation, noting that such technical mishap prolonged the brownout predicaments of affected consumers.

“For several hours, low level MORE personnel failed to identify the initial faults in the affected feeder lines. Despite this, the same personnel recklessly re-energized multiple times the feeder lines, which in turn, resulted to additional faults, damage to other lines and feeders and a longer duration of power outage,” PECO narrated; and noting that other incidents also happened when longer power interruptions could have been avoided if the technical competence of the new distribution utility had been reliable enough.

“Several Ilonggo consumers suffered grueling 20-hour power outage that could have lasted for less than five  hours, if again, proper protocols were followed, and competent and experienced personnel handled the job,” PECO stressed.

MORE Power struck back by indicating that it has been pursuing various upgrades in the distribution network, because of PECO’s failure to undertake preventive maintenance on its facilities – and insisting that the facilities it had taken over were dilapidated or decrepit, “with no little or no rehabilitation or maintenance.”

PECO nevertheless apprised the industry regulator on the series of preventive maintenance activities that it had done through the years at the various substations; while noting that it was ERC itself which rendered a ruling on May 24, 2019 in ERC Case No. 2018-008 MC that “PECO’s distribution system is reliable in distributing electricity to the Ilonggo consumers,” and in the 2016 certificate of compliance it issued to the utility firm, the regulatory body similarly stated that “PECO’s power distribution equipment fully complies with the standard laid down in the Philippine Grid Code.”

Depending on which side of the debate anyone has been lending an ear to, one thing is obvious: that there is a problem in power distribution in Iloilo City and it’s the consumers who are suffering and collateral damage is upon them on the harsh “David versus Goliath ruckus” overwhelming power distribution in the area.

This begs this question to be asked to the ERC: Where are you when the consumers you ought to serve are suffering?

Indeed, the regulatory body’s prompt action, intervention and fair investigation and assessments of incidents in the city are warranted — because the agony and confusion of the consumers in the area can no longer be rebuffed with that inordinate “let them eat cake” precept or to bury the Ilonggos’ cry for help in deafening silence.


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://mb.com.ph/2020/09/03/voices-of-dissent-in-iloilo-citys-grueling-brownouts/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=voices-of-dissent-in-iloilo-citys-grueling-brownouts)

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