Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Prepaid electricity

This is my column today.

I was in Tacloban City over the weekend where I got acquainted with the latest power distribution system that seems to be working well in terms of lowering electricity usage and costs, as well as in terms of lowering power systems losses.

It’s called prepaid electricity system.

I know. It sounds funny and incongruous. At first blush, it sounds like we’ve pushed our tingi mentality to ridiculous extremes. We’re probably one of the very few remaining countries in the world with a market that still thrives on the sari-sari store system—the same system that encourages people to buy most goods in sachets, from shampoo to toothpaste to seasoning. I don’t mean to come across as this snotty person who looks down on people who buy tingi; it’s just that there a lot of things wrong with a system that discourages people from thinking more strategically and proactively; and which happens to do more harm to the environment by using up and producing more plastic than necessary.

But a number of my friends in Tacloban swear by the efficiency of the system. A college friend of mine says that her household’s electricity consumption has been reduced significantly since they switched to the prepaid system. It’s because the system allows them to plan their electricity usage more effectively because they pay in advance for it. The net result is that they have become more responsible in their use of electricity.

The system is quite simple. A special prepaid meter is installed in lieu of the usual electric meters. The prepaid meter contains indicators that show up how much electricity credits are still available as well as a keypad which consumers can use to input electric load credits which they buy in increments of 100 pesos. The meter automatically shuts down a household’s electricity system as soon as the credits are consumed.

Unlike the ordinary meters which only record consumption and which require a “reader” to monitor, the prepaid meter allows consumers to plan their electricity consumption more effectively. Because they pay for the electricity in advance, the impact of the expense is immediately felt compared to the usual system which in effect makes consumers automatically at debt to the power supplier.

There are many benefits that can be derived from implementing a prepaid electricity system. Obviously, there is no need for additional manpower to serve as meter readers. This translates into lower overhead costs for power suppliers. Theoretically, power suppliers are also prevented from charging systems losses to consumers although of course we all know that as we have learned in the case of Meralco, there are many creative ways to milk consumers dry. Long queues at payment stations as well as for other services are also done away.

It’s a system that is working quite well in Tacloban City. I was told by electric cooperative personnel that the same system is being implemented in other cities such as Palawan, Cebu and even in Baguio.

It’s a system that empowers consumers to have control of their electricity consumption and expense. When a household is running low on electricity credits as indicated in their prepaid meter, they can simply unplug some electrical equipment or ration electricity usage more effectively.

A friend in Tacloban who switched to the system told me that they now know how much electricity each appliance in their house consumes. In the process, they have become wiser and more practical.

Given the current electrical imbroglio, one wonders why a similar system has not been put in place in Metro Manila. Perhaps because the system puts power in the hands of consumers rather than on the wily machinations of big business?

* * *

I have written in the past about how protesters have become more and more creative—and recently, more antagonistic and hostile—in their efforts to amplify their issues and grievances. What was a seeming isolated incident of one graduating student mounting a protest in the middle of her own graduation ceremonies last year was duplicated twice over a couple of weeks ago. And by the looks of it, the recent two incidents are not the end of it.

The graduation ceremonies of the University of the Philippines-Manila and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines were marred—or made more memorable, depending on where one’s political affiliation lies—by protests mounted by some members of the graduating class. At the UP Manila graduation, Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno was the guest speaker while Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita was the special guest at the PUP graduation.

Both Puno and Ermita shrugged off the incidents. Both claimed that they empathized with the protesting students. I am not privy to the temperament of the two gentlemen, but their pronouncements on the incidents were expected as it would have reflected badly on their character had they taken offense. However, I doubt if both would be happy to accept invitations in the future without some guarantees that a similar incident would not recur. I doubt if both universities would be able to invite controversial national figures to serve as guest speakers in future graduation ceremonies.

Many of my friends thought that the two incidents reflected negatively on the universities concerned and on the kind of training they provide in terms of building the character of their students. I have a more ambivalent stance on the matter as I think that universities and schools should first and foremost teach students to think for themselves and speak their own minds. A hallmark of a credible university is in its ability to produce students who can think for themselves and act independently.

Having said that, however, I must admit that I also empathize with the other members of the two graduating classes who felt that the protesting students deprived them of their right to enjoy their graduation ceremonies in the way they wanted to —free from political noise and in-your-face protests. One graduate from PUP summed it up quite nicely when he told me that “parang sila lang ang student sa PUP at kanila lang ang graduation na ’yun.”

Perhaps future student leaders who intend to ape the protesters during the UP and PUP graduation ceremonies recently can also take into account the feelings and opinions of the other members of the graduating class.

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