Friday, 2nd June 2023

The frustration around prepaid electricity meters

By Editorial Board
07 February 2023   |   3:53 am
The Federal Government ought to pay a greater attention to the frustrations being experienced by many Nigerians in the course of procuring prepaid electricity meters.

Prepaid meters. File Photo

The Federal Government ought to pay a greater attention to the frustrations being experienced by many Nigerians in the course of procuring prepaid electricity meters. In a country of highly unstable power supply, the prepaid meter is the only panacea to prevent undue exploitation of consumers from the estimated billing system of power distribution companies. Sadly, millions of Nigerians are yet to exit the estimated electricity billing fraud due to the high cost of meters, which the 11 Distribution Companies (DisCos) are supposed to release under the Meter Asset Providers (MAPs) programme. Besides the cost, the supply system is very slow and anxious consumers are subjected to various extortions, all in the guise of processing fees. To crown it all, many of them have to endure long periods of inactivation of the meters for one technical reason or the other. The affected consumers are charged for the transportation and other routine matters that ordinarily should be the responsibility of the DisCos. And the most ironical is that the meters are properties of the DisCos; subscribers, even when they buy and bear the cost of installing the meters can be heavily penalised for daring even to touch it. Some subscribers have procured meters for more than a month without being able to activate them, due to no fault of theirs. This situation demands serious intervention of a responsive government through its appropriate agency, in this instance the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC).

At the outset, the meters which were supposed to be free were not readily available for consumers who were most eager to have them installed in their homes and business premises. It has been established that accessing electricity via meters is more reliable and cost-effective, as consumers are made to pay more through estimated billing. Following persistent pressure and outcry from Nigerians, the Federal Government, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, rolled out various methods of procuring the prepaid meters through various outlets of DisCos. But the high cost has made it difficult for consumers to access them even as they continue to face rising estimated and unfair billing. Consumers in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Kaduna, among others, recently had cost to complain about the high cost although they were willing to purchase the meters. Besides, some consumers narrated how they bought meters but were allocated units already registered under different account names and with huge accumulated bills.

According to the meter cost approved by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) since November 2021, a single-phase meter sells for N63,061.32 inclusive of a 7.5 per cent VAT, while a three-phase meter costs N117,910.69. Some consumers who paid and got the meters recently, said the installers often demanded more for more payment to cover transport fare, which should not be the case.

Although the NERC has severally reiterated an end to estimated billing with adequate metering, its second quarter power sector report of June 2022 showed that the country is far from reaching that target. Only 38 per cent of 12.6 million registered customers reportedly have meters.

The price increase of about 30 per cent announced on electricity meters countrywide is not the best thing that can happen to the power sector which is already characterised by inefficiency in distribution, extortion through unjustified billings and pronounced customer dissatisfaction marked by failure of the metering mandate by the Distribution Companies (DISCOs). The increase can only deepen the apprehension of subscribers, increase their economic yoke and widen the gulf between customers and service providers. Clearly, NERC that announced the price hike gave no consideration for the negative effects on the average Nigerian struggling pathetically with inflation, high cost of living and very little or no wage arising from unemployment.

Long before now, the euphoria that greeted the launch of the National Mass Metering Programme (NMMP) had dampened following the snail speed of the programme, which has barely touched the surface of the problem, two years later. The price increase has created further disillusionment and confusion among Nigerians, given the government’s pronouncement earlier that the metering process would be free; a declaration that some of the DisCos have debunked and interpreted to mean that the cost will be borne by subscribers and payment spread over a period. While subscribers have taken that assertion with equanimity, it is rather annoying that even before the meters are supplied, the cost had gone up; and there is still no certainty about when the meters would be supplied or installed. The entire arrangement is turning out to be a big hoax.

The introduction of electricity metering was supposed to bring relief to consumers who have borne the brunt of excessive charges by the distribution companies (DisCos) but the emerging trend seems to prove otherwise. Although NERC said that meters purchased under NMMP were exempted from the hike, Nigerians have reason to be apprehensive of the new price increase given that the NMMP has not made any appreciable impact since it was launched in December 2020, with the support of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

According to NERC, Nigerians are to pay more for electricity meters with effect from November 15, 2021. In the circular signed by the commission’s chairman, Sanusi Garba, entitled ‘‘Review of the unit price of end-user meters under the Meter Asset Provider and National Mass Metering Regulations,” the NERC said the price review was based on “the recent changes in the macro-economic parameters.” It explained that “in arriving at the approved unit price, the Commission had, in particular, only considered changes in foreign exchange and inflation since the last review of June 2020.”

The commission also stated: “This price review is subject to change upon the conclusion of the procurement process under phase 1 of the National Mass Metering Programme.” Does this signify a possible further increase in the near future? There are suspicions that the bills may also contain hidden charges/deductions yet unknown to many.

Obviously, the DisCos have not fulfilled their mandate and the government as regulator (NERC) is not helping the matter by erring on the side of the DisCos. Government should have been more mindful of the mass poverty in the land at this time; and the dire need to create jobs and employment opportunities by empowering small and medium scale entrepreneurs rather than its belligerent interest in tariff increases that make life more difficult for the public.

The combination of the unfulfilled mandate for metering all customers, the epileptic power supply, extortionist estimated billings and incessant price increases highlight the huge fraud of privatisation of electric power and justify clamour for a review of the processes. The successor companies lack the capacity to perform. The new price increase is uncalled for because the meters are properties of the distribution companies. The metering process ought to be faster than it is currently.

The ultimate aim of the NMMP, to roll out six million meters for all connection points on the grid without meters over a period of 18 to 24 months, estimated to impact 30 million consumers nationwide, is to ensure mass metering in the country and by so doing put an end to the menace of estimated billing of consumers, which the Buhari administration promised to eradicate before the end of his administration.

So far, this is not happening; and what Nigerians see is that those implementing the programme exploit it as an opportunity to make money. The meters should be free or attract minimal charges such that power consumers will not be further constrained to be metered. There is nothing more frustrating than having to pay for services not rendered, and this has been buttressed by wide complaints by consumers across the country against estimated billing.

Given the defect in deregulating the power sector, which Nigerians are paying dearly for; and the fact that the sector requires huge capital and technical expertise, the government can either review the present arrangement or provide more support for the DisCos with a view to their fulfilling the metering mandate. Perhaps more stringent legislation is needed in addition to liberalising the production of meters which itself can provide employment for the masses and thus boost the economy.

As many companies as possible should be encouraged to get involved in the production of meters. Instead of the unlimited time frame the DisCos are enjoying in providing meters, there should be a deadline after which defaulting companies should face sanctions.