As I See It

DOE didn’t prepare for Mindanao power crisis

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The power crisis in Mindanao is getting worse with the prospect of getting even “worser” in the future. The reason is simple: Mindanao has been dependent on hydroelectric power. For a time, Mindanao had the cheapest power rates in the Philippines. Water, which turns the turbines of the power plants, was plentiful and free.

Those days are over. Population explosion and economic expansion have overtaken the power supply and there is now a shortage. The trouble was, the Department of Energy did not foresee the coming power supply crisis and so did nothing to prepare for it. The lack of power has crippled Mindanao’s economy and it looks like the government has no immediate solution to it. It will take years to build new thermal power plants, and even longer and much more money to construct new hydroelectric plants—if there are more rivers that can be harnessed. What will happen to the factories and other businesses now suffering because of the lack of electricity?

Many will have to close shop or, at least, scale down production, which means they will have to lay off workers; which, in turn, will make poverty—already a problem in Mindanao—even worse. And as we have seen, poverty leads to more crime and lawlessness.

What is the government doing to alleviate the crisis? Issuing press releases. But the people and businesses of Mindanao are fed up with press releases. They want action now!

It is not as if the power crisis came to Mindanao all of a sudden. Warnings of an impending shortage had been raised many times in the past. And as early as last year, stories had been coming out that Mindanao would be facing a power crisis starting this year. Several cities in Mindanao like Zamboanga, Iligan, Cagayan de Oro and General Santos, have been experiencing almost daily brownouts since last year, and economists and business groups had warned the problem could get worse this year when summer set in and the lakes behind the dams of the hydroelectric plants started drying up. Summer has arrived and, as predicted, many parts of Mindanao are suffering from power outages of four to six hours daily.

Worst hit among the Mindanao cities is Zamboanga, where residents, business establishments and the sardine canning factories that bring in millions of dollars to the export sector have to stop production up to six hours daily. In General Santos City, the tuna canning factories have to stop operations for two to three hours every day. And in Davao City, the shopping malls that light up the city’s economy become malls of darkness for two hours a day.

Despite being far away from Manila, the scare stories about terrorist bombings, the Abu Sayyaf’s resurgence, and the military’s war against secessionist Muslim groups, Mindanao’s urban areas had enjoyed an uninterrupted economic growth with its megacities sprouting new shopping malls, schools, hospitals and hotels. BPO (business process outsourcing) establishments and call centers, operating 24 hours, have sprung up in Davao and Cagayan de Oro. All of these new facilities require electricity.

The El Niño brownouts of 2010 should have served as a wake-up call for the government to start looking for new power sources. Even after the brownouts ended with the coming of the rains, the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp. (PSALM) issued a bulletin to all Mindanao power cooperatives that PSALM would be reducing their allocation of electricity.

Some power cooperatives acted on the warning and signed exclusive power supply contracts with private companies—like the Alcantara Group and Aboitiz Power—that were building new power plants, so they would have full power supply when the real electricity supply crisis hits in 2014.

For a very long time, Mindanao enjoyed the lowest power rates in the country. This was due to the fact that National Power Corp. (Napocor) had tapped the vast hydroelectric resources of the island. These hydro sources at the Pulangui hydroelectric plant in Bukidnon and the Agus complex encompassing six power-generating plants in Lanao, Marawi and Iligan were all commissioned in the last century and used by Napocor to provide base load electrical power for the entire island.

There were a few other power-generating facilities, mostly diesel plants, built to complement the existing hydropower capacity, but more than half of the energy in the Mindanao Grid continued to be sourced from hydro. The trouble was we thought we could go on forever with this cheap power source. No serious efforts were made to look for other power sources in case the heavily hydro-dependent Mindanao Grid would no longer be able to meet the power demands of a growing population and an expanding economy.

The government has to face the fact that Mindanao can no longer depend on hydroelectric plants as the primary source of base load power. The good old days are over. And I cannot understand why Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras let this happen.

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KAPIHAN NOTES: Today (Monday) being still a non-working holiday (Araw ng Kagitingan or Bataan Day), there will be no Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel. The Kapihan forum will resume next Monday, April 16.

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