Since taking over operations of the various utilities in November 2013, Leadership’s investigations has revealed that the Distribution Companies (Discos) have done little to close the huge metering gap which exist in the electricity sector, leaving millions of customers at the mercy of estimated billing. Juliet Alohan writes
The privatization of the nation’s power sector brought renewed hope for Nigerians both in the area of better power supply as well as general improvement in customer service.
Specifically, closing the huge metering gap which existed in the sector where less than 50 per cent of electricity consumers are metered, was one of the areas Nigerians thought would be quickly addressed by the new owners.
This would ensure that consumers pay for the energy they consume, but findings on the ground suggest that the utilities are not in a hurry to meter customers but rather, prefer to have them on estimated billing where customers are served outrageous bills monthly whether or not there was power supply the entire period.
The bills are unrealistic in most cases, taking recourse to nothing, not even the methodology on estimated billing initiated by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC).
Normally, in arriving at an estimated billing for a customer, a Disco is expected to establish a basis, considering the duration of electricity supply to the customer, apartment size and electrical appliances used and more importantly, benchmark with customers on prepaid metering within the same cluster.
But the reality on ground is one where consumers are unilaterally billed at the discretion of the Discos with the bills periodically increased without the increase of electricity tariff by NERC.
Narrating his ordeal to this correspondent, John Ebuka, a resident of Mpape, an Abuja suburb, said he is confused about the manner he is being billed adding that it lacks normal reasoning.
He said: “In my area, we were initially having power rationing of one day on, one day off and at that time my monthly estimated bill was N3, 000 for my one bedroom flat.
“But since September 2014, the bill increased to N11, 000, it beats normal reasoning because the rationing is now one day on and three days off because of a faulty transformer. One would expect a reduction in the bill rather they increased it.” he told Leadership.
Another consumer, Mary Ebilegbe, who resides in Kubwa, another Abuja suburb, said while she is billed between N3, 800 and N4, 800 monthly for her one room self-contained apartment, her next door neighbour who is on prepaid metering spends N2000 on energy units monthly.
Ebilegbe said although she has applied for a prepaid meter since 2012, she is yet to get one installed as the operators keep telling her meters are not available.
She said she’s pained more by the fact that while she goes to work daily and switch off her appliances, her neighbour who is mostly a sit at home mother of one and having same appliances as her, who ought to pay more for utilising electricity all day, ends up paying less because she’s lucky to have a prepaid meter.
But in their reaction, Abuja Electricity Distribution Company (AEDC) explained that the disco does not operate as an island, stressing that it is guided by procedures spelt out by the regulator as far as metering and billing of customers are concerned.
The Disco explained that its billing of unmetered customers is scientific, saying, whatever amount of energy is injected into a district is measured in KWH with various transformers and feeders for various set of customers.
“Now we have measured this number units in terms KWH of power into this particular district, we remove the amount for metered customers on pre-paid and metered credit meters, then the reminder is what goes to the unmetered customers,” the company’s spokesman, Ahmed Shekarau, said.
He pointed out that in places where customers complain of over billing, load audit conducted revealed that such customers where initially being under-billed.
He explained that there is a difference between generalizing a problem and going to the specifics, adding “We do not want to be unfair to our customers that is why for the unmetered customers we are sensitive about the energy delivered for that particular month to that particular area. If we deliver less energy in that area we reciprocate as far as billing is concerned.”
While assuring customers that the company is doing everything possible to provide smart meters for them, he urged those who are not satisfied with their bills to complain to the nearest business unit.
This development is not limited to any Disco as a recent fact finding mission embarked upon by this reporter, in company of some NERC officials to ascertain Discos compliance with the Credited Advance Payment for Metering Implementation Scheme (CAPMI) revealed a sector wide challenge.
CAPMI is a scheme initiated by NERC whereby willing customers can advance money for purchase and installation of meters which should mandatorily be installed within 45 days by the Disco. The payments would be subsequently refunded through a rebate on the fixed charge element of the customers’ electricity bills.
This initiative was taken in recognition of the fact that the Discos are heavy burdened with lots of challenges and may not have enough funds to deploy meters at once to all customers. However, many Discos were found wanting of sluggishness to provide meters for customers who had paid under CAPMI.
But during the fact finding mission to Jos, NERC officials expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of the Jos Electricity Distribution Company (JEDC) over its implementation of the CAPMI scheme.
Chairman of NERC, Dr. Sam Amadi, who was represented by the General Manager, Government and Consumer Affairs, Dr. Anthony Akah, said the regulator was not pleased with customers’ compliant of non-installation of meters by the Disco despite haven paid, noting that such failure is a breach of contract.
Addressing the Disco, he said: “We are not satisfied with your performance in terms of metering of your customers. This is a breach of contract, especially when a customer has paid for a meter under the CAPMI scheme. It is not that the meter suppliers are not forth coming, we demand a satisfactory performance from you.”
In its reaction, JEDC’s Executive Director, Marketing, Verr Jirho assured its consumers who have applied for CAPMI, of installation within weeks while explaining that the company would have about 95,000 meters in its possession in the coming weeks which would be deployed to its customers.
Similarly, at the Benin Disco, our reporter observed several complaints bordering on outrageous estimated billing from unmetered customers most of whom made payments pre-privatisation.
One of the complainant said, while he was spending an average of N7000 monthly on energy units for his three bedroom apartment, using a prepaid meter, the company served him an estimated bill of N17, 000 a month, when his meter went bad. He however said the issue was later resolved after months of petitioning.
BEDC’s Executive Director, Commercial, Abu Ejoor, in his reaction, assured the aggrieved customers that the Disco has completed plans to meter them despite the fact that most of them made payments to the defunct PHCN prior to privatization.
The regulator has been criticized by the President, Nigeria Consumers Protection Network, Kunle Kola Olubiyo, who expressed concern that a lot still needs to be done by NERC in its oversight function of the sector.
He alleged that the Disco now engage in price loading whereby they unilaterally increase a consumers unit consumption and bill them as such without carrying out a load audit to ascertain the appliances used by the customer.
Speaking to our reporter, Olubiyo said: “NERC has done a lot, but gaps still exist in the regulatory function for which it needs to do more to make sure these things are checked. I am resident in Abuja and am not on prepaid billing and I have seen across board, complaints from consumers where people are just placed on say, 100 units monthly, and that translates to a lot of money.
“Consumers should be billed for energy they consume, it should be scientific, not at the whims and caprice or discretion of the Discos or sharp practices to the disadvantage of the consumer,” Olubiyo told LEADERSHIP.
Minister of Power, Prof. Chinedu Nebo has said government was not unaware of the challenge faced by unmetered electricity consumers and as a way to cushion the effects, he said government has concluded plans to roll out 1 million meters which would be distributed amongst the Discos to be installed for consumers.
Nebo who explained that the gesture is aimed at bridging the huge metering gap said, “The president has approved funding for the purchase of 1 million meters to be deployed to consumers, a mechanism would be developed on the sharing formula.
“The problem is if you have no meters you are subject to estimated billing, that’s why some people may not even be happy to give you meters. But we think we should continue to insist that every consumer must be metered. When government kick-starts the massive deployment of meters, estimated billing will stop, the gesture is to support the Discos which are overburdened by lots of challenges,” Nebo told Leadership.
Meanwhile, Chairman of NERC has explained that two possibilities could result to a customer receiving an exorbitant bill. According to him, “It is either that power has improved significantly and the person enjoys more power and in that case the Disco bills for higher consumption.
“The second likely option is that the Disco increases the bills unfairly and claim that some people are chronically underestimated and then optimize them properly. I think the consumer should always benchmark their consumption with metered consumers in the same cluster to know if they are overbilled,” Amadi told Leadership.
Speaking further he said, “Estimated consumers by virtue of their status are subjected to unfair pricing and the only way to overcome such challenge without metering, is to benchmark with metered customers within their area because the Commission cannot determine proper billing without evidence.”
On what punitive measures are there for Discos engaged in billing sharp practices, Amadi said, while there are sanctions for such, the regulator cannot apply them if consumers don’t complain with evidence.
“Our job will be to address these kind of issues with samples, we will ask questions that bother on the frequency of such complaints and then mandate the Discos on what to do with a closer check on them,” he said, adding, “there are 11 Discos across the country and the only way to deal with them is through general sampling with a view to zero in on them through patterns of consumer complaints.”