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Analysis

Mindanao power shortage ‘remains grim’

Electricity users in power-strapped Mindanao are up in arms against government plans to build more coal-fired plants to relieve the critical energy shortage, warning that these would lock the island into a polluting source of power. The warning was sounded ahead of the energy summit in Davao City at the weekend by the environmentalist foundation, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, which claimed that contracts had been prepared to allow the construction of coal plants which are reported to be “more expensive, dirty, and nonrenewable power.”

The summit has been convened to seek short- and long-term solutions to the energy shortage. Press reports quoted Greenpeace Southeast Asia as claiming that environmental compliance certificates had been “hastily approved” for the new plants. At a pre-summit forum last week, according to newspaper reports, Energy Undersecretary Josephine Patricia Asirit told businessmen, local executives and officials of power cooperatives that preparations were underway to build more coal-fired plants to generate 700 megawatts of base-load power and to revive the 100-watt Iligan diesel plant owned by the Alcantaras. The power barges deployed in Mindanao would produce an extra 120 megawatts since the Agus Pulangui plants, which produce 180 megawatts, would be shut down, with repairs starting on April 17, according to news reports. She said using the Iligan diesel plant and power barges would mean that power rates in Mindanao would go up by 50 to 80 centavos per kilowatt hours.

Asirit said Mindanao had a daily demand of 1,200 megawatts and a shortfall of 100 megawatts, and that demand was growing at 50 megawatts yearly. Some 1,400 megawatts would be in the pipeline for Mindanao from October 2012 to 2014. With these costs, the government was in effect leaving the public only two options—bite the bullet of high electricity costs or suffer the consequences of worsening electricity shortages. Rep. Teddy Casiño of the party-list group Bayan Muna said: “It appears that there is enough power supply in Mindanao. The problem is that it is too expensive, so the power distributors are not buying for fear of going bankrupt.”

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Greenpeace Southeast Asia criticized the government for insisting on using coal. It said: “The government has obviously used the power crisis and created an emergency situation to ram down the throat of the people of Mindanao the dirty and coal-fired power plants.”  It said it would remind President Aquino at the Davao summit that he promised during the 2010 presidential election campaign to phase out the coal-fired power plants. “This is a complete turnaround,” Greenpeace said, adding that it “would lock the country to harmful fossil fuel.”

Press reports from Davao City contradicted claims by the Department of Energy (DOE) that Mindanao had experienced only 30 minutes to two hours of power outages a day. Undersecretary Asirit has accused the media of blowing the power shortage out of proportion, claming during the pre-summit forum that there were no 10-, 12- or 14-hour blackouts on the island.  She refused to call the shortage a “crisis,” and called it a mere “situation.”

The electric cooperatives in Mindanao opposed the planned privatization of the power plants and barges. They also asked for the deferment of the planned privatization of the Agus and Pulangui hydroelectric plants, as it would help ease the power crisis without resulting in a drastic spike in electricity prices. All these proposals to relieve the shortage were mainly short-term measures, and no long-term plans have been proposed so far.

According to a report from Davao City by BusinessWorld, the DOE estimates that more than 50 percent of Mindanao’s supply of electricity comes from hydropower sources, the bulk from the Agus power complex in Lanao and the Pulangui IV plant in Bukidnon. The Agus plants are already 30 years old. Among the island’s major generation plants, only STEAG State Power Inc. in Misamis Oriental was built in the last 10 years.

Still according to BusinessWorld, it has been underscored in various forums that the inability to build power plants over the last two decades was a major factor in the current problem. “To a certain extent, this was influenced by the grid’s dependence on hydropower, where the generation cost is below P2 per kilowatt hour or less than half the estimated cost for coal-fired plants,” the report said.

The short-term prospects of making up for the shortage in electricity appeared grim, as power-sector leaders in Mindanao remained pessimistic.  “Even if we comply with the latest circular from the Department of Energy, the effect will not be significant in terms of making up for the power shortage in South Cotabato and the entire Mindanao,” said Santiago Tudio, the general manager of the South Cotabato Electric Cooperative.

He was referring to a DOE circular of last month, directing distribution utilities to comply with the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001.

The law provides sanctions that include disconnection from the grid if the customer fails to comply with a load-to-main level.

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In Zamboanga City, power availability expectations remained low. “We expect that late April will be the worst,” with the daily outage in the city likely to be longer than six hours by that time, said Jesus Castro, the acting general manager of the Zamboanga City Electric Cooperative.

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TAGS: alternative energy, amando doronila, Analysis, Electricity, Energy, Mindanao, opinion, Power shortage
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