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The power situation in Mindanao made clearer

/ 10:36 PM April 17, 2012

The party’s over. Cheap electricity is over for Mindanaoans. They have to pay more for electricity or put up with rotating power outages.

This, in effect, was what Energy Secretary Rene Almendras told the Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel. He was the lone guest at that 27-year-old breakfast forum last Monday.

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That is also the message of President Aquino to the people of Mindanao last week at the Power Summit in Davao City, where he explained the Mindanao energy situation.

The trouble with Mindanao was that it has been fortunate for so long to have the cheapest electricity in the Philippines. That was because it had plenty of water resources then to sustain a number of hydro power plants like the Maria Cristina Falls and the Agus-Pulangui hydro project. Hydro power is the cheapest because the raw material, water, is free.

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Because of the cheap electricity, business and industry expanded in Mindanao and the population exploded very quickly.

Canning factories and shopping malls, call centers and other businesses sprouted, and because jobs were available, migration from other parts of the Philippines increased. Therefore, the demand for electricity increased. Now the demand has outstripped the supply, hence the power outages.

Worse, it is now summer and there is no rainfall to replenish the water in the reservoirs and therefore the power output of the hydro plants also diminished. Mindanao’s power mix—meaning the sources of power generation such as hydro, geothermal, thermal or diesel-powered plants, is heavily dependent on hydro power. Mindanao still has no coal-fired power plants because the people oppose it. Coal plants pollute the environment. However, a coal-fired power plant has been approved by the national and local governments. It can be operational in three years, Almendras said, and that will take care of the power shortfall in Mindanao.

Furthermore, there are at present two “embedded power plants” that are being repaired. The two of them can generate almost 300 megawatts of electricity, exactly what Mindanao needs. They can fill in the power shortage while the coal-fired power plant is being constructed, Almendras said. When the coal plant is already operating, the two embedded power plants can then supply the reserve requirement. Power systems need reserves so that when something happens to one of the power plants, such as a breakdown, the reserves will take over.

Meanwhile, power barges, or floating power plants, will supply the immediate power needs of Mindanao, but that has a price to pay, literally. The cost of electricity will be higher because power generated by the diesel-powered barges, is more costly.

But even with the increase, power rates in Mindanao will still be cheaper than those in Luzon, Almendras explained. The reason: Mindanao’s power mix has plenty of hydro power which is very cheap. So Mindanaoans should not complain, he added.

But the people of Mindanao are still complaining. They said that the power supply on the island began to suffer when the government began to sell the power plants owned by National Power Corp. to private investors. More are scheduled to be sold.

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The government explanation: The sale of Napocor power plants to the private sector is mandated by the Epira. The theory: Many private investors competing in a free market will keep power rates down. Mindanao was exempted from the Epira because it already had very cheap power rates because of the hydro plants. But those days are over. The hydro plants can no longer meet the power needs of Mindanao. So it has to resort to more expensive power sources.

What about renewable biofuel such as alcogas, coco-diesel, nuclear power, solar and wind power? Alcogas is derived from sugarcane, of which the Philippines has plenty; coco-diesel is derived from coconut oil, of which we also have plenty.

Almendras said the government has already issued many permits and licenses for private investors to set up “bio-mass” power plants. These are power plants that generate electricity by burning “bio-mass” or agricultural wastes such as palay and coconut husks, sugarcane stalks, leaves and grass and other organic materials, including garbage. A number of sugar refineries are already producing their own electricity with the use of sugarcane wastes, Almendras said.

As for nuclear power, that is a very controversial thing now because of what happened in Japan in 2011, Almendras said. Many Filipinos are against it; that is why the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant is not being operated until now.

Many countries with plenty of nuclear plants are now having second thoughts about them. Germany, which has the biggest number of nuclear plants, has begun dismantling some of them, Almendras added.

As for wind power, not many places in the Philippines have winds strong enough to turn the turbines of wind power plants.

Solar power holds the most promise, Almendras admitted, because solar power is not only free but also plentiful, especially in the Philippines. Unfortunately, solar panels (the mirrors that catch the rays of the sun to turn water into steam that would turn the power-generating turbines) are very costly.

But Almendras sees light at the end of the tunnel. The cost of manufacturing solar panels is getting lower every year, he said. What’s more, their efficiency is increasing. Time will come when their decreasing costs and the increasing prices of fossil fuels will meet and everybody will shift to solar power. The energy chief hopes this will come in our lifetimes.

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TAGS: featured column, hydroelectric, Mindanao, opinion, power crisis, power rates, solar
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