Staving off rotating blackouts
The hot summer months are almost upon us, and with them the alarming prospect of rotating blackouts as demand peaks and power output from hydroelectric plants sinks. Which explains the call for President Marcos Jr. to resurrect and improve the energy conservation program first implemented in the 1970s by his late father.
This was one of the measures raised and approved during a recent Cabinet meeting to solve the twin problems of escalating energy costs due to elevated global fuel prices, and the thin power reserves given the spike in the use of refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), demand in Luzon will spike to 13,125 megawatts toward the end of May, an 8.35-percent increase from the actual 2022 peak load of 12,113 MW. While projected supply will be enough at between 14,730 and 15,800 MW to cover the maximum, this also means that the operating reserves required to keep the power grid up and running will just hover at the minimum of some 1,800 MW. Thus, any unexpected outage will lead to blackouts.
Such a scenario has prompted several government offices to put in place a slew of energy conservation measures before temperature rises further and increases the demand for power. Among the measures being pushed is the adjustment of working hours to start at 7 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. as implemented by DOE; the four-day work week, with a work-from-home scheme on Fridays, and the setting to 25 degrees Celsius of air-conditioning units to keep power consumption at a minimum. As stressed by Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno, the Philippines cannot influence global fuel prices, but it can attack the nagging problem from the demand side, as seen by these proposed simultaneous moves to shave megawatts off the peak demand.
House Deputy Speaker Ralph Recto echoed Diokno’s call, warning that if the government fails to act, the combined expenses of national and local government units on utilities, fuel, oil, and lubricants could hit a staggering P100 billion a year. “Surging inflation or not, the government’s P91 billion annual utilities and fuel bill should prompt President Marcos Jr. to relaunch a better version of his father’s 1970s ‘enercon campaign,’” Recto said in a statement. He also advised Mr. Marcos to take a page out of his father’s book by combining a conservation campaign with the rapid construction of new power plants. Recto cited as well former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s response to the spike in oil prices during her term, which was to direct government offices to reduce their consumption of fuel, electricity, and other utilities by 10 percent, and to institutionalize a Government Energy Management Program.
“President Marcos Jr. should launch [his own program] now to familiarize [government] offices before summer sets in, when a rise in air-conditioner use, low water levels in hydroelectric dams, and distribution lines trip-offs caused by high heat index combine to trigger power outages,” Recto said.
The private sector, keenly aware of the precarious power situation over the next few months, has been doing its share to help government stave off blackouts. The Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), the country’s largest private electric utility with a franchise area covering Metro Manila, has embarked on a campaign to encourage large power consumers to join its interruptible load program (ILP). The program asks the company’s big load customers to use their own generators instead of drawing power from the national grid, when there is a red alert or supply is not enough to meet demand. “Big companies, malls, hotels, and buildings have their own gen sets that can run or may reduce their operations, so we can avoid brownouts. This [would allow] small businesses and residential users to continue their day-to-day activities without any power interruptions,” Meralco vice president and head for enterprise and national government Ma. Cecilia Domingo earlier said. Fortunately, as of end-February 2023, almost 120 customers with a total committed “de-loading” capacity of around 560 MW are part of the ILP in the Meralco franchise area.
The public can do its share by reducing its own power consumption in households through such simple steps as using more efficient lighting fixtures and turning them off when not in use. But even while Filipino consumers do this, the government is enjoined to revisit its energy development plan and implement long term, rather than quick fix, solutions to the longstanding problem of expensive, and sometimes inadequate and unreliable power supply, that has been turning off investors and adding to the burden of consumers. The Marcos Jr. administration can take advantage of new energy technologies that can be harnessed to address the country’s urgent need for affordable, reliable, and clean energy to power not just today’s increasing electricity need, but the expected rise in demand tomorrow.
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