'Don't stir up power issue'

by Aurea Calica, The Philippine Star

Posted at Jan 12 2014 10:31 AM | Updated as of Jan 12 2014 06:32 PM

MANILA - With the likelihood of higher electricity rates still bedeviling consumers and keeping energy officials and power firms on the defensive, Malacañang is calling on concerned parties to work things out and avoid inflaming the issue.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte made the appeal yesterday as she lamented how the issue had become “too sensitive” in the wake of widespread outrage over the announcement of the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) of a sharp rate hike in December.

Compounding the matter was the power firm’s warning of rotating blackouts in the summer months in the event it is barred permanently from implementing its more than P4 per kilowatt-hour rate increase.

“At least on our end, we are doing our part to ensure there would be effective solutions to what they are facing right now,” Valte said over radio dzRB.

She said there are definitely solutions to the country’s power woes and that it would be best for the public and industry stakeholders to avoid moves and statements that would only make matters worse.

On Thursday, Meralco said the Supreme Court’s 60-day freeze order on its planned power rate hike would disrupt the overall power supply chain and could result in rotating blackouts in the summer months.

Meralco said it based its rate hike petition – approved by the Energy Regulatory Commission – on the higher cost of supply from generation companies.

The SC’s temporary restraining order (TRO) does not apply to generation charges collected by power firms from Meralco.

After Meralco’s warning, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. also assured the public of government efforts to ensure efficient service to power consumers.

“It is the duty of the government to protect the welfare of the citizens. It is also the duty of Meralco and all companies in the power industry to ensure that the services are delivered to the public,” Coloma said.

“The government will coordinate with the industry to achieve this objective,” he added.

Valte said the government is open to amending the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) and that the Department of Energy is mediating between Meralco and its power suppliers.

Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said they were trying to work out a more equitable cost-sharing arrangement between Meralco and power producers.

The surge in generation cost was triggered by the scheduled maintenance shutdown of the Malampaya natural gas power plant and the “forced shutdown” of other plants.

Meralco said it had to get supply from the more costly Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM) as a result.

Some lawmakers had likened Meralco’s warning of rotating blackouts to blackmail.

“It appears to be Meralco’s way to exert pressure to lift the temporary restraining order and give way to raising power rates,” Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo said. “This saddens us because it’s the people who will suffer eventually.”

Emergency powers

Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, for his part, said the rising power cost is one of the two “catastrophic problems” that President Aquino needs to address immediately, using emergency powers.
He said the other “catastrophic” problem is the lack of mass transit system in the country, particularly in Metro Manila.

Evardone said the two problems – which are threatening to undermine the country’s growth – should be tackled by an administration armed with emergency powers.

“The emergency powers shall, however, provide safety nets to ensure transparency and accountability,” Evardone said in a statement.

“I think this is a golden opportunity because we have a very honest President who is incorruptible and who enjoys the confidence of domestic and international investors,” he said.

He said there is an urgent need to fast-track the construction of more power plants not only to meet the growing demands of a rising economy but more importantly to lower the cost of electricity.

In the same manner, there is a great need to speed up the construction of a mass transit system in Metro Manila to arrest the worsening traffic problem and provide commuters a more efficient mode of transport, he said.

“And all of these can be achieved by empowering President Aquino with powers that will expedite the process of implementing mega power and mass transit systems,” Evardone said.

Manila Rep. Lito Atienza, a member of the so-called independent bloc in the House of Representatives, dismissed Evardone’s call, saying emergency powers are unnecessary and that all Aquino needs to do is to be “more decisive, action-oriented, and really get into the country’s problems.”

“That’s not an option that will solve these ills,” Atienza said in a telephone interview, adding the administration’s attitude in dealing with governance and crises has been one of apathy.

He cited the case of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Land Transportation Office, which have not been able to do the simple task of providing new car owners with stickers and license plates.

He also cited the case of the Languindingan International Airport, which still lacks runway lights and some landing instruments.

“If that’s the attitude of the Cabinet of P-Noy, like in the DOTC, then there must be something really wrong in the leadership. I’m sure this is being replicated in many other agencies in government. If he (Aquino) does not know what’s happening, then he is being remiss in his duties,” he said.

Atienza said granting Aquino emergency powers would only mean that the same authority would be delegated to his “inefficient” Cabinet officials.

He said inefficient and corrupt Cabinet officials were not being punished but were instead being given “a clean bill of performance.”

Meanwhile, Reps. Neri Colmenares and Carlos Zarate from the Bayan Muna party-list also accused Meralco and power generators of blackmailing consumers into accepting higher electricity rates.

Last week, Philippine Independent Power Producers Association president Luis Miguel Aboitiz said that because of the TRO, unpaid power generators might not have enough cash to pay for fuel for peaking plants.

“This is clear blackmail. Meralco and Aboitiz are trying to circumvent the Supreme Court temporary restraining order with this threat,” Colmenares said.

“What is obvious is that the problem was caused by government’s flawed policy of totally abandoning the power sector at the hands of private corporations through EPIRA,” he said. – With Paolo Romero