• Meralco goes to pieces

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    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.”



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    1. “The widespread power outages last Friday night could have been prevented by better maintenance, people on the frontlines of Meralco’s services said.”

      The widespread power outages was caused by low reserved of power from the generation sector, resulted to rotational power interruption to maintain the grid frequency and prevents system blackout.

      Outages mentioned in the article by Meralco foreman and its crew would result to localized outage as mentioned in the Meralco Twitter and not widespread. When we say widespread, we are not talking about certain locations without power, but a large area, say a whole city, multiple municipalities, worst a province or most of Meralco franchised area experienced outages.

      The seven problem faced by the Meralco crew in the article were all probable during strong winds, heavy rains, and with thunderstorms. Better maintenance of these distribution facilities could not prevent the widespread rotational outage caused by low supply of generation, but could probably prevent localized outages, but not 100% storm-proof.

      Meralco profits comes when the end-users were consuming electricity to pay for the compensation and benefits of its employees, including overtime. Prevention of outages was one of the top priorities for continuity/reliability of service to its customers that translates to income generation and less cost on the repair.

      LOSS OF POWER IS ALSO A LOSS OF ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTION UTILITY like Meralco. Power outages or interruption does not do any favor for electric distribution utilities.

      I do not speak in behalf of Meralco, I just want the readers to understand further the function of distribution system. Yes, it is very uncomfortable when power interruption occurs, every individual has the right to complain, even Meralco employees, because they are also users of electricity and affected when power is unavailable.

      From a Meralco employee.

    2. Amnata Pundit on

      From our stratospheric power rates to this, so what is so great about privatization?

    3. Why not consider the possibility of supply-demand imbalance, which is the most propable of a power shortage.

      For instance, a 100MW solar plant can not deliver the 100MW but only 10 MW for 3 hours, 1 MW for 5 hour, and none for the balance of 24 hrs, and what if there are more one solar plant doing that? is this not an obvious problem? why is this allowed to happen, ignorance (blindly following the green tech fad), greed?

      Further if the energy sector is operated as free market, the imbalance will cause a price spike during these period. That is why it is not in the interest of the country to privatize the utilities, all utilities not just power. A tightly controlled system can be efficiently run to handle the normal, contingencies, and whie balancing the cost of operating base, peaking units, maintaining hot and cold reserves because there will be no competition and conflict of interest – the objective is continuity, reliability to supply a productive economy, and stay viable at the same time. This not a direct profit making objective, it is much much more than that. It props up the economy in a bit more complicated way, but still very real, and the rest follows, domino effect.

      Same with other utilities, and transport and infrastructures projects. Should not be privatized. What is needed is to remove the incompetence and corruption. Don’t have to kill the bad elements, just promptly put them in jail. So how to be prompt? – not by way of the runaway justice system. Emergency power in the hand of a selfless, trustworthy leader can be effective here. Perhaps just until such time that the country is cured of its ills.

    4. Maintenance discipline has always been a problem in us . just look at the light rail and international airport and other infrastructures.

    5. Just two poles paralized the whole distribution network? leading to a long rotating scheduled outages? so what were on multiple outages? generating stations? substations? distribution lines? transmission lines? or something else? what were the WESM traders doing, the other IPP’s, what about the “green energy players”, the NGCP?

      Why not submit to a technical audit? from a third party! Show us what your are hiding in the power system!