The House of Representatives recently had a public hearing on a Bill to prohibit the issuance of estimated electricity billing to consumers across the country. The objectionable part of the bill sponsored by the Majority Leader of the House, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, is the provision to criminalise estimated billing by electricity distribution companies (Discos) in the country. The bill, according to the sponsor, followed numerous complaints by electricity consumers that they are being extorted by the Discos.
The bill is also the outcome of allegation that the Federal Government’s policy adjustments have failed to stop the power providers from technical manipulation of the reading pattern by using strange tariff methodology. Therefore, the criminalisation of estimated billing is being built into a planned amendment of the Electricity Power Reform Act which will make provisions for compulsory installation of prepaid meters for all consumers.
Across the country, estimated billing is given, whether consumers have electricity supply or not, and payment default earns disconnection. One of the consequential orders in the bill is a recommendation of six months imprisonment for any official of the power distribution companies found guilty of illegal disconnection, or refusal of the Disco to connect a customer after application, un-metering within 30 days of the customer applying for prepaid meter.
To effect these changes, the House of Representatives seeks to amend the Electricity Power Reform Act by creating new sections 68 to 72 to prohibit estimated billing forthwith, and a compulsory installation of prepaid meters to every electricity consumer by the Disco within its jurisdiction. Specifically, Section 68 of the proposed legislation empowers electricity consumers to ignore paying estimated bill and must not be disconnected in the event that no prepaid meter was installed for them by their respective Discos within the 30-day period.
The power firms have opposed the bill as proposed by the House of Representatives. The Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) represented by the Association of Nigerian Electricity Distributors (ANED) had articulated their reasons for opposing the bill. According to Fashola, although the Discos have a contractual obligation to provide meters to electricity, consumers, it is not their core mandate. Their core mandate, he argues, is to supply energy.
The solution to the problem, the Minister added, would be to licence new players, specifically charged to supply meters.This, he added, would take the load off the Discos. But the association of the power firms, have also argued that if estimated billing was made a criminal offence, the action will “promote darkness” in the country. The association wants the billing system to be simplified for the understanding of consumers and for the operators to provide for transparency in application. Rather than punish the power firms, as the proposed legislation envisages, the ANED calls for the criminalization of energy theft and metre bypass by creating electricity special/mobile courts to try offenders.
Undoubtedly, estimated billing has been a controversial issue and consumers feel ripped-off by electricity providers. This predates the emergence of the Discos and Gencos about four years ago. Indeed, it is unfair for consumers to pay for energy they did not consume. We believe that the move by the House to criminalise the estimated billing system will make the power firms to sit up. We are not comfortable with criminalising estimated billing, but we are opposed to the issuing of estimated billings. Let consumers who want prepaid meters be supplied with the equipment so that they can pay for only the electricity they consume. The provision of prepaid meters will make energy consumers effectively manage their energy consumption.
The government must protect consumers from the highhandedness of the electricity providers. That, we believe, is the essence of the bill before the House of Representatives. What the Discos are currently collecting as tariff through estimated billing is much more than what consumers can pay, even if there was a cost reflective tariff in place. Since most Nigerians are not metered, they pay more for electricity because the parameters used in calculating the tariff fall short of the standards approved by NERC. This is not the fault of electricity consumers. The government should, therefore, address the issue of prepaid meters by breaking the monopoly of the Discos in the supply of meters. Government should also determine the financial capacity of the Discos and those that cannot deliver on their core mandate should be taken over by the government to restore sanity and stability in the power sector.