Brownouts and Bill Shocks? Here’s the mother of all solutions

by Cris Laraño
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Summer has always meant a big break from our work stress, of beaches and chilled drinks, while those stuck in the city take advantage of the hot and humid breezes to fly kites.

Though liberating to look at, those kites have led to power outages in many places. Kites snagged on power lines repeatedly this summer, and kept tripping Meralco’s transformers. Not only residents were affected by the drop in power quality, but also key installations such as hospitals and those factories still operating to produce basic needs during the community quarantine implemented to contain the spread of Covid-19.

There were other causes of Meralco’s power outages of course. Power transformers kept overloading, while the community quarantine kept people at home all the time. During one bad week, more than 700,000 customers went without power for four hours or longer; the worst outage lasted four days. Temperature spikes added to the misery.

The utility reports there have been 46 momentary tripping events and six sustained interruptions since May 6. These outages affected 608,253 customers, of which 137,713 experienced blackouts that lasted at least five minutes. Most of those affected are in Metro Manila, followed by Cavite and Bulacan.

Those outages, along with the recent bill shock experienced by customers due to their higher-than-usual consumption based on estimates, was understandably upsetting to many. Meralco, with more than 20 million consumers in its franchise area, was not able to deploy meter readers during the enhanced community quarantine period, to protect their health.

RELATED: Don’t be shocked with your latest Meralco bill. Here’s what happened (Updated)

The universal standard

The bill shock and the prolonged outages were avoidable were it not for the lag in Meralco’s long-standing application to roll out a Smart Grid.

A Smart Grid applies digital technology and two-way communication to an electricity distribution system. As the largest power distributor in the Philippines, Meralco has been advocating for the Smart Grid since 2010.

The Smart Grid is already the standard power-distribution system in the United States, Europe, Australia, and leading Asian countries like Japan and China.

The system is designed to protect itself, limiting damage to facilities and minimizing disruptions due to outages. This blunts the impact of natural calamities, human error, and attempts to sabotage the power grid, thwarting cyber-security risks.

When power circuits trip or transformers are overloaded, for instance, the Smart Grid system would have reported on the faulted area’s location and problem, analyzed the solution, isolated the fault, and restores power to unaffected areas within minutes or seconds.

Meanwhile, a load-control program gives commercial and industrial customers options to choose variable energy rates based on power supply and demand. They can be charged at a lower rate for permission to remotely lower thermostat settings on HVAC systems in factories during daily, weekly or seasonal periods of low system demand.

24/7 monitoring

With the Smart Grid, Meralco can remotely control and monitor its network’s performance down to individual customers, and manage area-specific electrical demand and supply. Theoretically, reduced operating costs and capital investments could yield lower-priced power for its customers.

Using this system, energy and information flow back and forth between a distribution utility and its electricity end-users. An Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) measures and records usage data and provides it to consumers and energy companies.

This would eliminate the need for consumption estimates, as what happened during the enhanced community quarantine when meter readers could not be deployed. The smart meter lets customers track their energy consumption with an app, and get their monthly bill on their smartphone.

Lawrence S. Fernandez, vice president and head of the company’s Utility Economics Department, is certain a Smart Grid system would have kept the bill-collection rate in April, during the quarantine, from plunging to 3 percent.

The low collection rate hurts not only Meralco’s finances, he says, but also the power suppliers’ financial viability. These entities are paid on a pro-rated basis for the electricity they sell based on Meralco’s collections.

A multi-tasking solution

Recognized as pioneering and ground-breaking, Meralco’s prepaid-electricity service won “Best Consumer Engagement Project” in the 2017 Asian Utility Week in Bangkok, Thailand.

At Meralco’s annual stockholders' meeting on May 26, president and CEO Atty. Ray Espinosa said the utility has already deployed 102,000 smart meters for its prepaid electricity service. These include high-rise condominiums and development projects by Ayala Land, SM Development Corp., Century Properties, 8990 Holdings, Empire East and Filinvest.

For Century Properties, adopting the prepaid electricity system for its Azure development was life-changing to its clientele. Tenants living overseas for the better part of the year would otherwise have to pay for electricity monthly even when their units are unoccupied.

Century Properties reports its savings reach as much as 20 percent.

By the first half of 2021, Meralco would have installed a total of 145,000 smart meters—38,000 more for the Prepaid Electricity Service, and 5,000 for post-paid customers.

Espinosa added, “Beyond the 145,000 smart meters, Meralco continues to work with the ERC (Energy Regulatory Commission) for the approval of 1 million more smart meters, to be deployed over three years.” Meralco is targeting to have around 3.3 million customers on the Smart Grid by 2024, or around 40 percent of its projected subscribers.

Ultimately, the company will utilize the system for enhanced decision-making, risk-reduction management and agile customer service. Smart Grid technology will empower Meralco to become an even more reliable stakeholder in further advancing the country’s nation-building efforts.

To learn more, contact your Meralco Relationship Manager or call 16210.