The quest for affordable electricity

By Herbert Vego

WHEN a friend told me about a prominent Ilonggo family that the Iloilo City Prosecutor’s Office had indicted for accumulated power theft worth half-a-million pesos, my initial reaction was one of disbelief. The Tiu family – famous for high-end hotels and appliance stores — is one of the richest families in Iloilo City. Why would they risk their reputation to cheat on their power bills?

The apprehension team of MORE Electric and Power Corp. (MORE Power) had discovered five tampered meters in the family compound, resulting in 50% reduction in electricity charges.

Under the law (R.A. 7832), power pilferage is punishable by reclusion temporal (12 years and one day to 20 years) or a fine ranging from P50,000 to P100,000, or both, at the discretion of the court.

The law is aimed at protecting paying consumers who pay for stolen electricity charged to “system’s loss”. This is because the loss becomes part of their “consumption” bill.

Anyway, even assuming that the Tius — Edward, Rodolfo, Eugene, Mary Tiu, Edgar, and Caroline – would be found innocent in a court of law, then they would have established a good precedent on justice being applicable to both the rich and the poor.

In fact, there are other pilferage cases pending against prominent public and private respondents.

It is now up to a court of law to render judgment on the Tius who had denied involvement in the theft, alleging that it was only the personnel of the previous distribution utility, Panay Electric Co. (PECO), who had free access to the electric meters.

And so, rather than be judgmental against the Tiu family, let us focus on why MORE Power has been very strict against power pilferage that had hurt the innocent but benefited the perpetrators. It is apparent that the intention of the company is to discourage the potential pilferers and to keep electricity within reach of the poor.

When MORE Power took over PECO in February 2019, there were only around 65,000 household customers. Today or a year and a half later, the number has ballooned to 83,000.   One explanation for that is the option given to power pilferers to “legalize” rather than be caught and sued.

Thus, in accordance with the economy of scale, both the power players and consumers save cost on the expansion of operation.

What if the company expands further to the neighboring towns? Circumstances seem to be going that way.

You see, in July this year, MORE Power pegged the lowest residential rate at only P6.45 per kilowatt-hour due to the resourcefulness of its president, Roel Z. Castro, who had negotiated with the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management  (PSALM) Corp. for the cheapest, environment-friendly power from its geothermal plant in Leyte.

MORE Power could have retained the P6.45 rate had a freak accident not intervened. It involved a backhoe of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) slashing a submarine cable of the sole power transmission utility, National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), at Bio-os River in Amlan, Negros Oriental.

The scarcity in the capacity of the power grid to serve existing power producers and distributors has kicked up production and distribution costs, all of which are reflected in the end users’ bills. The power bill, incidentally, lumps charges mainly shared by the transmission (NGCP), generation and distribution utilities.

For MORE Power users, a hike from P6.45 to P7.99/kWh in August still pales in comparison to hikes billed by the electric cooperatives in Western Visayas that now range from P11 to P12/kWh.

Subsequently, three municipal councils (Sangguniang Bayan) of the municipalities of Pavia, Leganes and Dumangas have passed resolutions asking the 1st District congressman, Mike Gorriceta, to find a way to enable MORE Power to replace the Iloilo Electric Cooperative 1 (ILECO-1) as their power distributor. Their main reason is the tight financial status of commercial and residential users who hardly thrive amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the change sought for is easier said than done due to different laws governing the operation of electric cooperatives and independent power franchisees.

As far as MORE is concerned, Castro recently told the Daily Guardian, “We are studying if it’s possible legally and economically.”

And if we heard it right from the spokesman of ILECO-1, its rates could be lowered in November when their existing contracts with power generators would have expired. This would allow them to haggle for cheaper prices.

Totoo pala, competition keeps prices low.