Power struggle | Inquirer Opinion

Power struggle

08:05 PM March 29, 2012

Mindanao, the land of promise, is also the land of paradox. Its geographical location has shielded its productive fields from the typhoons that regularly pummeled Luzon in the north, so it has become the country’s new rice granary and its rising agricultural star. But the star has dimmed somewhat in the last two years, when typhoons and floods wrought havoc on parts of Mindanao, as in the devastation of the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan last December.

But the worst is yet to come, with an apparent power crisis besetting Mindanao. (Some quarters have described it as “artificial” or “contrived.”) Since it is also a hydro powerhouse, Mindanao is vulnerable to power cutbacks because of drought and the dropping water levels in watersheds. Despite the floods it has suffered lately, it is faced with the riddle that plagued the ancient mariner: water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drive its water turbines and generate power.

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Many parts of Mindanao are suffering daily power outages lasting from two to four hours. Energy officials have warned of daily 8-hour outages as summer peaks. Mindanao now has a shortfall of 178 megawatts, according to National Grid Corp. of the Philippines. While peak capacity stands at 1,300 MW, only 1,180 MW can be generated. The shortfall will have to be plugged by a daily rotation of outages all over the island.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras had been apprised of the looming crisis as early as 2010, but failed to implement the remedies he promised, such as dredging the Agus and Pulangui rivers to boost the capacity of the Agus hydroelectric complex by at least 150 MW. The lawmaker also said Almendras had done nothing to have the diesel power plant of Iligan Steel Corp. reopened to add another 130 MW to the supply.

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Almendras has not responded to the criticisms directed at him; he even snubbed the House inquiry into the power shortage. Instead, he has blamed electric cooperatives for failing to contract enough supply for their actual needs, and accused them of overdrawing and aggravating problems in grid management. He has also warned that the deficit could worsen as the Pulangui hydropower facility would be shut down on April 9 for repair and maintenance.

The energy secretary has no good news to offer Mindanao’s harassed power consumers, and is merely calling for the grant of emergency powers to President Aquino to deal with the crisis. In his estimation, the President, armed with such special powers, could tap electricity from four diesel-fired power barges owned by a private firm in Mindanao. He also said emergency powers would likewise allow the National Power Corp. and Power Sector Assets and  Liabilities Management Corp. to enter into supply agreements with generation companies.

The caveat is that contracting power from the power barges and other private firms would mean higher electricity costs. “The only way to solve the shortage is to bring in power that is more expensive,” Almendras has said, as though unaware that Philippine electricity costs are already the highest in the region, largely because of the phalanx of taxes leveled on it by the state.

Just as worrisome is that Almendras’ rescue tack would further move Mindanao away from hydroelectric and other renewable energy sources. As it is, every power project in the pipeline departs more and more from Mindanao’s hydroelectric strengths. While many of the hydroelectric plants have been largely left to molder through the years and are now being upgraded as a reflex action in response to the crisis, two coal-fired plants are planned for construction in the next two years. Thus, while the energy department drags its feet in dredging the rivers of Mindanao and protecting the watersheds to improve the conditions of the island’s hydroelectric plants, it will spend taxpayer money on building coal plants that may exacerbate environmental damage and turn Mindanao away from a sustainable future.

While Mindanao may have to bite the bullet to relieve itself of the energy shortage in the short term, it should not sacrifice sustainable development and its natural power potentials in the medium term. In any case, long-term solutions should embrace a future of renewable energy sources and ecologically correct development approaches. Poor or nonexistent policy planning—as displayed by Almendras—has led to this power shortage.  Shallow and helter-skelter planning by the energy establishment will only worsen it.

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TAGS: department of energy, Editorial, Government, hydroelectric, Mindanao, opinion, power outages
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