Too much water, too little electricity | Inquirer Opinion
As I See It

Too much water, too little electricity

/ 08:05 PM March 29, 2012

Many parts of Mindanao and the Visayas are suffering from not only the out-of-season deluge—too much water—but also from lack of electricity caused by lack of water. The reason is that Mindanao depended largely on hydroelectric plants because of which, for a very long time, it enjoyed the lowest power rates in the Philippines. This was due to the fact that National Power Corp. (Napocor) had tapped into the then vast hydroelectric resources of the island. These hydro sources at the Pulangui hydro plant in Bukidnon and the Agus complex encompassing six power-generating plants in Lanao, Marawi and Iligan were all commissioned in the last century and used by Napocor to provide base load electric power for the entire island.

There were a few other power-generating facilities, mostly diesel plants, built to complement the existing hydropower capacity, but more than half of the energy in the Mindanao grid continued to be sourced from hydro. The problem was we thought we could go on forever with this cheap and readily available power source. No serious efforts were made to look for alternative base load power sources in case the heavily hydro-dependent Mindanao grid would no longer be able to supply the energy demands of a growing population and an expanding economy.


Not only that, the rivers behind the dams were heavily silted due to massive deforestation of their watersheds. Therefore, the holding capacity of the reservoirs of the dams was greatly reduced and thus could no longer provide enough water to turn the turbines that generate electricity.

It is not as if the crisis descended upon us suddenly. It has been seen coming for a very long time, and warnings of an impending shortage of power supply had been raised many times. But the government did nothing; it was busy doing something else.


As early as August last year, stories have been coming out that Mindanao would face a power supply crisis beginning this year. The stories and warnings are now coming true. Several cities in Mindanao, like Zamboanga, Iligan, Cagayan de Oro and General Santos, have been experiencing daily power outages since last year. Economists and business groups had warned it would get worse this year when summer sets in and the island’s hydroelectric plants, where it gets most of its electricity, start drying up. Well, there are still floods although summer has started and, as predicted, many parts of Mindanao are experiencing outages from two hours to six hours daily. The prediction is that the outages would go up to 10 hours daily.

Worst hit among the cities in Mindanao is Zamboanga, where residents, business establishments and the sardine canning factories that bring in millions of dollars in export income every year have to grind to a halt for up to six hours a day. In General Santos, the tuna canning factories also have to stop operations for two to three hours daily. In Davao, the shopping malls that lit up the city’s economy in recent years have become malls of darkness for two hours a day. The famous Luz Kinilaw remains open during the outages because it does not rely on electricity but on charcoal to grill the delicious “bihod” (tuna egg) and tuna belly that customers from all over the Philippines like to savor when they are in Davao.

This is sad for most Mindanaoans. Despite the hardships of dealing with being far away from Manila and the scare stories of terrorist attacks and kidnappings, the war against secessionist rebels and the Abu Sayyaf’s resurgence in recent years, they had enjoyed uninterrupted economic growth in the urban areas. Mindanao’s cities saw the construction of new shopping malls, schools, hospitals and hotels as 24-hour business process outsourcing (BPO) enterprises and call centers sprang up in Davao and Cagayan de Oro. All of these new facilities require power.

The El Niño brownouts in 2010 should have served as a wake-up call for the government to begin looking for new power sources. Even after the El Niño brownouts ended with the coming of the rains, the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp. issued a bulletin to all Mindanao power cooperatives that it would be reducing their allocations of electricity. Some power co-ops acted on this warning and signed exclusive power supply agreements with private companies like the Alcantara Group and Aboitiz Power that were constructing new power plants so they would have the supply when the real power supply crisis hits in 2014.

Those happy days of plenty of cheap hydropower are over. The government has to face the fact that Mindanao can no longer rely on hydroelectric plants as the primary source of base load power. The good old days when the government could just sit down and wait for the rains so that agriculture and business could flourish are over.

What I cannot understand is why Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras has allowed this to happen. In Zamboanga City, the local electricity co-op is forced to sign a supply agreement with an Aboitiz-owned power supply barge company that would supply 18 megawatts of electricity produced at higher cost for the consumers and with much pollution.

(The Department of Energy has sent a reply to our first column on the subject. We will discuss that in the next column.)

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TAGS: featured column, Mindanao, opinion, power outages
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