AT least once a year, someone in Meralco’s dour tower in Ortigas rummages through the files for the folder marked “PRES,” dusts it off, and waves it in front of a gathering of bored energy beat reporters.
Most of the time, doing that counts as development work by Meralco on PRES, which stands for “Prepaid Retail Electric Service.” This objectively praiseworthy concept has confounded the nation’s largest electric distributor for years.
That has not, however, stopped the company from repeatedly promising that its $7 million (P312 million) PRES system will be available ‘soon.’ Various obstacles have delayed the arrival of ‘soon’ time and again; these are mainly the result of Meralco’s attempting to reinvent the wheel with its PRES system, using somewhat different technology than that of the already-operational system in use in other parts of the country.
That system is provided by Makati-based Xen Energy Systems Inc. (XESI), and has been operating in one fashion or another for about four years. XESI, a gnat of a company compared to Meralco, has already secured authority to deploy a PRES system in three electric cooperatives—Batangas Electric Cooperative 1 (Batelec 1), and Bohol Electric Cooperative 1 and 2 (Boheco 1 and Boheco 2).
“XESI has the distinction of being the only provider given such authority as of this date,” the company pointed out in an email reply to my request for an update on their status.
In an announcement late last week, however, Meralco also claimed to have secured approval for its version of PRES. The purpose of Monday’s publicity-seeking effort was to highlight a new application by Meralco for Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) approval to deploy an additional 100,000 prepaid electric meters, which would bring its total to 140,000, according to the company.
“We filed for another 100,000 meters with the ERC. That forms part of our capex [capital expenditure]filing for this year,” Meralco senior vice-president Alfredo S. Panlilio was quoted as saying by a number of news reports this past Monday. “For the 40,000 [prepaid meters]initially approved by the ERC, we want to finish it [the full public rollout of the PRES system]if not June, by the end of the year at the latest,” he added.
It is not at all clear, however, that the approval to implement PRES has actually been given to Meralco—the lack of a ruling to that effect by the ERC in the places accessible to the public, or even those places accessible to a persistent columnist with contacts “on the inside” of the organizations involved tends to suggest it has not. The most recent action, at least according to ERC’s database was a preliminary hearing (weirdly called a “pre-trial conference” in ERC’s order dated Feb 2) that was to have been held on March 4.
While it is likely Meralco’s PRES will finally be approved, that decision could be weeks or months away, and the provisional authority that will be granted initially may contain several significant conditions that Meralco must meet before final approval is given by the ERC. For Meralco to say that the program has already been approved is misleading at least, and sets up its vast customer base for yet another disappointment, in much the same way as Meralco customers looking forward to having the PRES option were disappointed in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
For its part, XESI is also waiting for ERC approval of capital expenditure plans before expanding coverage of the prepaid system in its three definitely approved client cooperatives. As of now, each of the three distributors is operating PRES for only part of their coverage areas, involving a couple hundred households each.
“The target timeline for the public launch is more or less dependent on the capex approval of ERC. Even so, we are looking to hopefully prepare by the end of 3rd or 4th quarter this year,” XESI explained. According to the company, the ERC has assured them that the process is moving forward, although slowly, due to the complexity of the capex plans.
In the meantime, XESI is expanding its reach; five more electric cooperatives—in Palawan, Leyte, Zambales, Biliran, and Camarines Sur—are presently running pilot tests of the prepaid system. “We have more electric cooperatives on a queue to do pilot tests, and only the limited amount of demo meters we have are preventing us from doing more in parallel,” a XESI official explained.
Although it is amusing to watch the giant, fantastically wealthy Meralco consistently being outhustled by a comparative pipsqueak, we should hope that the former secures the regulatory approval it needs soon. Prepaid electricity—a relatively simple system that allows customers to buy “load” for their electric consumption in the same way they purchase cell phone load—has been virtually ignored by the Department of Energy and its frantic chief, Jericho Petilla, in planning for the expected power shortage in the next couple of months.
Although the use of PRES has not yet become widespread enough to provide reliable data about its impact on electric demand, it is an important conservation measure. By giving customers the means to monitor and control their own electric consumption, that consumption will decrease, not by a great amount, perhaps, but every little bit counts. What likely counts even more is prepaid electricity’s impact on household incomes; spreading electricity costs out makes them more manageable for low wage earners compared to one large monthly bill.
The ERC, too often a source of woe for electric consumers, ought to seize the opportunity to champion their cause for a change, and expedite its approval process.