The widespread power outages last Friday night could have been prevented by better maintenance, people on the frontlines of Meralco’s services said.
At midday last Friday, electric consumers across a huge swath of Luzon, an area stretching from Batangas to the northern and eastern fringes on Metro Manila, were subjected to the uncomfortable indignity of “rolling brownouts” – planned power outages lasting between one and four hours, depending on the area, due to a deficit in the amount of electricity available to the Luzon grid.
To add insult to injury, severe weather on Friday evening took a serious toll on Meralco’s distribution grid, with “line problems”—the term used by the person responsible for manning the @meralco Twitter account—causing localized outages in all across Metro Manila and parts of Cavite, Rizal, and Laguna.
I would like to digress at this point to give a nameless someone at Meralco a well-deserved compliment: Whoever was responsible for managing the Twitter account last Friday evening is an apparent saint. Faced with literally hundreds of angry customers, our unknown correspondent answered nearly every message calmly and cheerfully, and was both sympathetic and informative. Give that person a raise; he or she has more than earned it.
And because the Meralco Twitter attendant was so conscientious, the Twitter feed was actually a detailed record of what was happening. It appeared to be nothing less than a comprehensive collapse of Meralco’s grid, beginning at about 7:00 pm and finally repaired, except for a few isolated spots, by about 2:00 am Saturday morning.
According to a spokesperson from Meralco, the Friday disaster was coincidental to the day’s earlier power shortage, merely isolated incidents due to the bad weather which, despite Meralco’s best efforts, are not entirely avoidable. As I have learned from past experience, however, the best source of information about technical issues is not the people in Meralco’s Mandaluyong monolith, but the guys on the ground who actually do the work to keep everyone connected.
Not surprisingly, the actual technicians told a somewhat different story. A repair crew replacing a broken post in my area over the weekend was happy to share—confidentially, of course—their experience of what happened last Friday night.
“There were problems everywhere,” the leader of the four-man team said. “Sure, when it rains, especially when it’s a strong storm, there are always at least a few problems. That can’t be avoided. But we were surprised on Friday. It was much worse than it should be. We had six orders [repair assignments from the Meralco service center]at one time.”
“Seven,” one of the other men corrected him.
“Okay, seven,” the foreman agreed. “Altogether that night, we made probably 10 or 11 calls.” The only times any of the men had experienced such a busy shift was in the aftermath of major typhoons. Most of the calls were relatively minor problems, but at least four of them—two instances of downed utility poles, a blown transformer, and one location where a falling tree had pulled down a lengthy section of line—were major repairs requiring additional manpower and equipment and several hours to fix.
With the exception of the latter incident, it was the consensus of the four men that the more serious incidents and at least a couple of the minor ones should have been avoidable. “The weather was bad, but it wasn’t like a typhoon,” the foreman said. “I don’t know what was going on in other areas—we could hear a lot of calls on the radio, but we weren’t there, so I can’t say—but I don’t think we should have had so many problems in this area.”
The basic problem, the four men all agreed, was that too much of the electric infrastructure had not been properly maintained. Although Meralco does conduct inspections, the foreman explained, problems are not always detected, or followed up quickly enough when they are.
“In fairness, sometimes you can’t tell something is going to break until it does,” he explained. “But something like a damaged post, that should be fixed. Both of the posts we saw were damaged before the storm, one was wood, one was concrete. It should have been obvious they were going to fall down eventually.”
The crew was hesitant to be too critical of the provider of their livelihoods, but they agreed the company should be doing more to look after its assets. “Okay for us, we get paid overtime,” one of the other crewmembers chuckled. “But you end up paying for it, no? And we all have an electric bill, too, so I guess we all do.”
“Maybe if Meralco had to pay for it, they would be more careful,” the foreman suggested. “And then we wouldn’t have to work all night in the rain.”