Electric dreams

AN ODD but delightful report is Inquirer Southern Luzon’s dispatch on how residents of Sitio Patag of Barangay Cabatuhan in the Camarines Norte municipality of Labo welcomed the sudden coming of electricity to their remote area. The absence of electricity in the town since the 1960s had deprived residents of what other townsfolk only kilometers away considered as part of daily life: TV sets, refrigerators and computers, among others. So when power finally came to the village of 78 households on Nov. 16, 47-year-old Mercedita Nemi’s first thought was to sell the family’s two carabaos and buy a TV set and refrigerator. Her neighbors acted likewise, and it’s easy to imagine TV antennae sprouting on rooftops in Sitio Patag, now literally a Bicol barrio in progress.

Patag embodies the empowerment that comes with electrification. Earlier, the village had to regulate its daily rhythm to the limits imposed by sun and twilight. Having no electricity meant, for one thing, having no additional income: The residents couldn’t set up mom-and-pop stores like food stalls because these would require refrigeration. Nor could they go out after the sun had set, “for fear of people who do bad things at night.” Patag is connected to the national highway by a 12-km dirt road that is by turns muddy and dusty as the seasons change. The dirt road winds through cliffs and forests; the primary mode of transport in the village is the habal-habal, or motorcycles that often carry more people than is possible. Indeed, Patag was the portrait of powerlessness.

But all that changed after linemen from the local electric cooperative came in September to set up steel posts and transformers. Life in Patag promised to no more be what its name implies—a drudgery and a monotony. (Patag means “flat.”)

The frustrating fact is that in this era of global industrialization, many areas of the Philippines remain literally in the dark. Lack of political will and policy conflicts have conspired to cast a wide swath of the Philippine archipelago in darkness. For example, only last month, while Budget Secretary Florencio Abad was saying at an economic briefing that the government was willing to spend as much as P7 billion a year to fast-track the completion of projects that would provide electricity to all areas nationwide, including the remotest provinces, then Energy Secretary Jose Almendras was singing a different tune: He said that the budget was way too big and that P3 billion would do.

Really, the energy establishment has got to come around and get its act together.

Last year, the DOE and the National Electrification Administration were able to provide power to 1,520 sitios within a record period of 90 days. The P814-million rural electrification project, which was carried out in the last quarter of 2011, is now benefiting more than 30,000 households. But the figure is paltry when pitted against the universal fact that many villages, like Sitio Patag in Bicol before the linemen came less than two months ago, are still in the dark.

Worse, even in urban and industrial centers a power shortfall is looming. Mindanao is already experiencing an energy crisis that was predicted two years ago, but which the DOE took time to check and contain. The government has to enjoin power investors to fill up the energy lack, but some of them are reluctant to set up power plants because of peace and order problems in the regions.

The security problem shows that there are other factors that militate against providing electricity to the entire nation. Corruption and mismanagement in electric cooperatives have been cited as a concern; another is the panoply of taxes that have been imposed on the energy sector, which inevitably get passed on to consumers, and which saddles the Philippines with the unenviable reputation of having the most expensive electric services in Southeast Asia. Even consumers have been made to carry the burden of the government’s oil and gas explorations.

It is ironic that it took only early this month for Sitio Patag to start receiving the benefits of electricity when it is located in Bicol, site of the Tiwi geothermal plant. It’s a shame that the residents will now have to pay taxes for energy explorations when the region actually enjoys geothermal power in abundance.

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Tags: editorial , electrification , global industrialization , politics

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