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No Free Lunch

Foresight and a sense of urgency

If I am writing a lot about Mindanao these days, it’s because I’m thoroughly convinced of its vital importance to the nation. I see that island region as the focal point and driver of the entire Philippine economy in the near future, if it is not already. Mindanao has in fact managed to outgrow the rest of the Philippine economy in recent periods. In 2009, the latest year for which regional growth data are available, Mindanao’s economy grew nearly four times faster (3.8 percent) than the overall economy did (0.9 percent). And with its multi-faceted endowments—spanning not only economic but also social and cultural assets inherent to the island region—there is much basis to expect Mindanao to pace the growth of the overall Philippine economy.

This is why I fret over the fact that an energy crisis is upon Mindanao all over again. It’s a far cry from the past, when energy was the least of Mindanao’s worries. It had the lowest-cost energy in the country, blessed as it is with cheap and renewable hydro and geothermal power. Mindanao’s agriculture-dominated economy also produces an abundance of biomass waste with tremendous energy potentials. Among the country’s island groups, Mindanao is best endowed to showcase the importance that renewable energy can play in the country’s energy future, in our quest for a low-carbon future. Barely 10 years ago, more than four-fifths (83 percent) of Mindanao’s power came from renewable energy sources, mainly hydro. There were no coal power plants then, oil-based plants accounted for only 17 percent of generated power, and there was no solar power capability.

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Things have since changed. Mindanao’s energy supplies relative to demands have not only tightened considerably; the energy profile has also moved away from renewables, toward greater reliance on fossil fuels. STEAG State Power Inc. commissioned a two-unit 232-MW coal power plant in Misamis Oriental in 2006. Coal has since become a significant contributor, accounting for 12.4 percent in 2009, rising further to 18 percent in 2011. At the height of the 2010 power crisis, coal’s contribution exceeded 27 percent as hydropower plants failed to reach their capacities, while oil’s share has stayed within the 17-18-percent level. On the side of renewables, Cagayan Electric Power and Light Co. (Cepalco) opened a one-megawatt photovoltaic power plant in Cagayan de Oro in 2005.

This overall reversal of fortunes arose from a mix of factors that were both within and outside our control. The periodic El Niño droughts that severely reduce the capacities of hydroelectric power plants, as happened in the 2010 Mindanao power crisis, is largely beyond anyone’s hands. But we could have had the foresight to prevent the wanton deforestation in the watersheds feeding the waterways (Agus and Pulangui Rivers) that propel Mindanao’s major hydroelectric power plants. Such deforestation has led to massive soil erosion causing siltation in these waterways, especially in Pulangui. Such massive siltation has in turn drastically reduced actual capacities of the seven hydro power plants on these rivers by nearly half.

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There are two logical remedial steps to correct the situation and potentially restore up to 200 MW of generation capacity. In the short term, the long-overdue dredging of the Pulangui River and rehabilitation of the six Agus River power plants are supposedly programmed for implementation this year, at a cost of P3.65 billion. The temporary plant closures these would entail would inevitably worsen an already short power supply situation, and may yet stop them from happening. These measures could and should have been done years ago, when doing so would not have been as disruptive—but alas, we only finally act when already up against the wall. Over the longer term, aggressive reforestation and strict law enforcement to stop further deforestation in the Pulangui and Agus watersheds must receive the serious attention they had always deserved—but neglected amid our officials’ usual lack of sense of urgency. The unprecedented disaster wrought by Tropical Storm “Sendong” on Cagayan de Oro and Iligan was a grim reminder of the cost of such lack of foresight.

Note that Mindanao’s current predicament happens at a time when lack of rain isn’t particularly a problem. What more, then, if a drought similar to that seen in 2010 dramatically cuts available power anew from the hydro power plants, whose contribution plummeted from 51.8 percent of Mindanao power in 2009 to only 12.3 percent in April 2010? One thing is certain: because we had not been proactive enough in the past, the energy situation in Mindanao will get worse, before it gets better. Our goal now should be to make the duration of the wait to when things do finally get better as short as possible, while minimizing the costs to the people of Mindanao and the entire nation.

Meanwhile, further energy diversification in Mindanao seems the only way to go. The needed quick fixes will force us to set aside, one hopes temporarily, the desired movement away from fossil fuels. Overdependence on cheap hydroelectric power has proven to be subject to much uncertainty, especially with the creeping effects of climate change. But this is not to say that we shouldn’t continue pursuing more development of hydropower potentials in Mindanao, especially because there remain numerous sites with potentials for small hydro power plants—I have seen some in the Zamboanga Peninsula and in Basilan, for example—not to mention biomass energy. But henceforth, foresight and a sense of urgency should not be the rare commodities that they have so far been.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: economic potentials, featured column, Mindanao, natural resources, opinion, power crisis
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