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No Free Lunch

When working together works

/ 04:05 AM November 24, 2020

Those of us in Metro Manila and Calabarzon were spared from Supertyphoon “Rolly’s” worst fury, through what many believe was yet another proof of prayer power. But make no mistake: Rolly badly debilitated the Bicol Region with maximum sustained winds of 225 kilometers per hour and gusts well exceeding 300 kph, making it the most powerful typhoon in the country this year, and indeed the world. Along with wide and heavy damage to homes, properties, and crops, the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) counted 59 power transmission towers downed or damaged by Rolly when it hit on Nov. 1.

Having cut the region off from the Luzon grid, such kind of damage traditionally leads to weeks without power in the affected areas. Most of us who had gone through landmark typhoons in our history know what that is like. Indeed, Bicolanos were already bracing themselves for this eventuality in Rolly’s wake. I was delighted to hear the story of how in this particular case, people deciding to go beyond their comfort zones to work together and cooperate for the greater good helped forestall what could have been much greater hardship for the already hard-hit Bicolanos. The story’s prominent players were the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) and its Bacon-Manito (BacMan) geothermal power plant, and the NGCP, together with the Albay Power Electric Cooperative (Apec) and the Sorsogon I and II Electric Cooperatives (Soreco I and II).

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The EDC’s BacMan plant that straddles the provinces of Albay and Sorsogon had managed to avoid damage, having learned from past experience to invest in typhoon-proofing its facilities, especially the most vulnerable cooling towers. Having been preemptively shut down as Rolly struck, but now cut off from the grid, it could not in isolation provide power even to its surrounding areas, unless reconfigured to be able to “black start” the grid (that is, start from a position of no power). This would require that the plant be operated in “islanding mode,” or in isolation from the grid, while loads are carefully introduced (from the electric cooperatives serving specific areas) to match power usage to the supply generated. But BacMan had not been set up to do either. Neither were there any prior contracts among the players, some of them outright competitors, for entering into any islanding coordination arrangements. But now it was imperative to do so, if power was to be restored soonest.

Even so, the NGCP and the EDC promptly agreed to collaborate and proceed, so that they could get power back to the Bicolanos as quickly as possible. As the NGCP rushed its transmission line repairs, the EDC’s ground teams went to work to configure the plant as needed, which entailed bringing in three generators from Manila to provide the blackstart power. The gensets arrived early morning of Nov. 6, and by 7 a.m,, teams from the NGCP, Apec, Soreco I and II, and BacMan worked together for the first time to initiate the carefully coordinated islanding process. This was not something they had done before, and the calibrated onboarding of additional loads as BacMan correspondingly calibrated the gradual ramp-up of its power supply proved to be a slow and anxious process. By the end of the day, about 27 megawatts of load had been connected, and messages of gratitude began coming in from mayors and citizens as they saw their power return much sooner than expected. But it was not until 9:25 p.m. the following day that BacMan was able to power up to the full 55MW targeted with the NGCP, with most of the Sorsogon and Albay coverage areas reenergized.

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BacMan was to continue generating power in the following three days, with load reaching up to 63MW by Nov. 9. By then, the Albay-Sorsogon lines were synchronized to the Luzon Grid, which the NGCP had already restored to normal operations. On Nov. 11, they advised BacMan that it was back to being fully synchronized into the main grid. The emergency islanding backup arrangement was declared a success.

Yes, good things happen when people choose to cooperate and collaborate even when they don’t have to. We’d be a far stronger and happier nation by now, if only our leaders did.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, cooperation, disaster preparedness, No Free Lunch, Typhoon Rolly, working together
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