By Lynda Ugo Ezike, Simbiat Okwilague and Ahmed D. Sani Alliance Law Firm
The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), which is the apex regulator of the Nigerian Electricity Supply Industry (NESI), recently released its current guidelines as a component of its 2023 Customer Protection Regulations. These guidelines provide, among other things, that there would be an interruption of customers’ power supply should they fail to pay their electricity bills within 12 days. It could thus be said that the guidelines are geared towards protecting the interests of the Distribution Companies (DisCos) and their customers, as they succinctly outline the rights and obligations both parties have towards each other.
Furthermore, the guidelines address different matters pertaining to electricity, such as: (new) connections, metering, non-payment, disconnection, and relocation. With regard to connections, the guidelines compel DisCos to specify the materials needed for new connections, which the customers are in turn responsible for providing. However, meters and the metering accessories shall be provided by the distribution company to ensure proper billing of its customers. Thereupon, the distribution company will facilitate the connection from their supply source to the metering point within 48 hours.
The said guidelines also stipulate that a customer will not be charged by their DisCos for surveying, inspecting, testing, and commissioning of the supply of electricity to the customer’s property. Upon inspection of a customers’ premises, the DisCos reserve the right to prevent a connection – either for a lack of proper identification or the failure of a customer to pay the requisite security deposit.
Moreover, the guidelines comprise of rules for payment, non-payment, and conditions for disconnection by the DisCos. An electricity bill is given to a customer which must have an exact payment date on the bill, and this bill may be delivered physically, by email, or via text message. The customers are then given 10 days from the date the bill was delivered to them, to make a payment. Furthermore, it is stated in the guidelines that “the period between the payment date and the date of scheduled disconnection for non-payment should not be less than 2 working days”. This means, therefore, that a customer is given a total of 12 days to settle their electricity bills or face the consequence of having their power supply disconnected. However, the NERC, in their guidelines, made room for exceptions for special cases where disconnection is not permitted. Such exceptions apply if a customer has an existing payment arrangement with the DisCos or if a customer has a life support machine in place. If the electricity supply is disconnected in any of the two scenarios, then the DisCos must compensate the customer with energy credits equivalent to each day of disconnection.
It is instructive to note that the guidelines also set out rules for customers seeking to relocate from their residential or commercial dwellings/properties. If an existing customer is relocating, a final meter reading is taken to ensure that he/she does not have any outstanding payments owed to their Discos. This final meter reading is taken by the DisCo and the customer must permit them to have access to the meter. If the aforesaid access is not granted by the customer, then the DisCo has the right to disconnect the power supply and issue a final bill to the customer without the need to read the meter, and the customer will be liable to pay the estimated charge. The customer in question is saddled with the responsibility of repayments of bill, and the Disco can recover outstanding bills from their customers. The purpose of this is to ensure that outstanding payments are not transferred to a new occupant should a defaulting customer relocate.
When a customer is unmetered, Discos must ensure that they provide transparent billing that is based on capped estimates. Discos must also give additional notice to their unmetered customers regarding any disconnection plans.
The guidelines also empower customers to raise complaints or express disapprovals about their electricity bills, and the DisCos must look into the said complaints. In a situation where a customer has been over-billed, the guidelines instruct the DisCos to refund the customers.
In all, these newly implemented guidelines released by the NERC is a step in the right direction as it displays the NERC’s continuous efforts to equilibrize the interests of electricity distribution companies and consumers, while promoting and encouraging a more reliable and efficient power sector. These new guidelines also addressed the issue of lack of transparency in the activities of DisCos, particularly as they relate to customer relationship. Today, with these new guidelines, customers have more confidence in the billing system as the usual estimated billing system of the DisCos have been drastically reduced by these new Guidelines. Moreover, it has become more and more difficult for the DisCos to disconnect customers indiscriminately without due cause.
The creation of the exceptions to when the DisCos can disconnect a customer is considerate, as it recognizes that a customer may be willing to make payments, but might be incapacitated in some way, thereby making it impossible for them to do so as at when due. Notwithstanding, the requirement that a customer may be compensated with energy credits equivalent to each day of disconnection may be fair to the customer in a situation where he is disconnected even where there is a payment plan already agreed between the customer and DisCo. However, where the customer is on a life support machine, disconnecting such a customer may have grave consequences, including the death of the customer on the life support machine. It therefore becomes necessary that at the point of disconnection, reasonable efforts be made to verify that the customer is not on a life support machine within the premises in question. It further imposes a duty on the customer, either personally or through any person, prior to, or at the point of connecting to the life support machine, to adequately notify the DisCo, with relevant proof of such life support machine, also providing justification as to why the customer should not be moved to another facility. Where the DisCo is unaware of the existence of a customer on a life support machine, it can therefore not be held liable for disconnecting such a customer.
Whether compensating the customer with just energy credits equivalent to the number of days of disconnection is adequate compensation for the damages to be suffered by the customer, is a question to be answered and determined by the courts in each relevant case. This exception should be improved to compel the DisCos not to disconnect the customer until the customer is out of life support machine, or at least relocated from such property before it can be disconnected. Culled From Mondaq