Cooling on coal

Environmentalists and investors are again at loggerheads over two proposed coal-fired power plants in Palawan, the last frontier for conservationists. The conflict though is not exclusive to that island. It is also taking place in Davao, Subic, Iloilo and Bataan. It does seem that while many countries are moving away from “dirty” fuel (like coal) toward clean or “green” energy, the Philippines is going in the opposite direction.

On Nov. 5, GN Power Ltd., a joint venture between Filipino and American investors, is set to start the testing and commissioning of a 600-MW coal-fired power facility in Bataan. Full commercial operations is scheduled in early 2013. In Sarangani, a P19-billion, 200-MW coal-fed plant is also rising, and a 100-MW facility, also using coal, will be built in Zamboanga—both owned by partnerships led by the Alcantara family.

In Subic, Redondo Peninsula Energy Inc., a venture among Aboitiz Power Corp., Manila Electric Co. and Taiwan Cogeneration Corp., will put up a 600-MW coal-fed plant. Another coal-fired facility, with a 300-MW capacity, will be built by Korea Electric Power Corp. to supply the power needs of the Korean-owned Hanjin Heavy Industries, the biggest locator in the economic zone.

Ayala-led AC Energy Holdings Inc. and A. Brown Inc. are spending P12.5 billion to put up a 135-MW coal-fired power plant in Iloilo. Commercial operations are targeted to start in 2015.

In Negros Occidental, Cadiz City Mayor Patrick Escalante is fully supporting coal-fired power plants in his area, saying two firms have proposed to reclaim 50 hectares near the Cadiz port to serve as a site for a 100-MW facility and as an economic zone.

The rush to build several of these facilities—which proponents insist are cheaper and faster to put up—followed the warning from outgoing Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras of a major power shortage by 2015 if no new baseload plants would be built.

But why coal? The ill-effects of this “dirty” fuel have been chronicled here and abroad. Take the case of the 600-MW Masinloc coal-fired plant in Zambales. Pushed to its completion in 1998 although everyone seemed to be against it, the harmful effects of the plant’s operation became evident several years later, affecting mostly farmers and fishermen, complained Masinloc Mayor Desiree Edora. “The fruits of trees, specially mango trees for which we are well known for, have been stunted. They do not grow as big as before. Fishermen report less catch,” Edora lamented, adding that aside from the ash that fell on the town, the power plant discharged its waste materials directly to Oyon Bay.

Before the Masinloc plant was acquired by the US-based AES Corp. from Napocor in 2008, an Asian Development Bank report had pointed out that “the operating performance of the plant has declined since 2001 because of inadequate maintenance and insufficient capital investments. The plant’s operations have been characterized by low capacity, poor availability, low reliability, and violations of environmental, health and safety conditions. The plant’s emissions are unable to meet dust emission limits at any load.”

Proponents of coal-fired power facilities reason out that new technologies now lessen the plants’ harmful impact on the environment and that the renewable energy option is too costly. However, Pete Maniego, chair of the National Renewable Energy Board, points out that the proposed feed-in tariff (FIT) rates for hydro and biomass power at P6.15 and P7 per kWh, respectively, are already lower than the approved electricity rates for coal plants in 2011. Maniego notes that coal advocates usually emphasize the price advantage of coal, “but that cost advantage does not factor the ill effects of carbon in the atmosphere… hidden costs [that] are not borne by the electricity or transport payer, but by those in the community whose health are affected.”

The Philippine Environment Monitor estimates that, annually, due to air pollution the Philippine economy wastes $1.5 billion and the Philippines spends more than $400 million in direct costs on health expenses. The World Bank says that 5,000 annual premature deaths in Metro Manila may be due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from exposure to pollution.

It is difficult to understand how the Aquino administration can push the construction of so many coal-fired power facilities after launching the National Renewable Energy Program, an initiative to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

A moratorium on coal-fired power plants would be in order.

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