Overload


meter_meralco

It’s already disappointing dealing with several power outages per week, it becomes insulting if that is the case despite paying the highest electric bills in all of Asia.

This sums up the woes of the everyday Filipino household. The country holds the bitter distinction of paying for the most expensive power rates in the entire continent, yet the service given in return is deplorable.

This month residents in the capital city of Manila were told to expect rotating  blackouts, a life taxpaying citizens down south in Mindanao have gotten used to. Soon however, it seems that power outages will be the norm for the entire country as the government anticipates a power crisis reminiscent of the 90’s.

The secretary of the Energy Department quickly pointed out the culprit: decades-old power plants which were impotent to meet the country’s growing needs. These ageing power  plants are older than the Energy secretary himself, which makes it no surprise they fail routinely.

Thousands of homes lose power whenever these power plants falter, are put under maintenance or overloads. It’s not only households that take a hit, but also different businesses particularly in the area of manufacturing – which is painful for a country looking to capitalize from its’ manufacturing potential.

Just last week, a total of 78,000 households and 169 factories lost power when the Pagbilao power plant in Quezon province broke down. This coal-powered plant  experienced a breakdown with its valve resulting in a shutdown. Repairs on the power plant is expected to last three days.

Another power plant in the Luzon grid also shut down recently. The Sual Power Plant in Pangasinan province which experienced technical problems halted operations and was put under repair. This added to the power supply shortage, which brought the Luzon grid to a red alert status – signalling that demand outweighed supply and reserve was below zero.

The central region of Visayas has not been spared from power outages as well. Just this week the entire area was also put on red alert, as their power reserves were in red. The reason? Three power plants in the provinces of Leyte, Cebu and Iloilo all shut down due to technical problems.

The outages however are worst in Mindanao, where blackouts occur for up to twelve hours per day. Mindanao has been on red alert status for years now, despite boasting the most number of renewable energy plants out of the three regions. This becomes a major deterrent of foreign investment in the area touted as the most impoverished in the country.

These problems are anything but new, the demand for power in the country has been a problem since the era of Ferdinand Marcos. In fact, this problem became the rationale for the dictator’s expensive white elephant project – the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Unfortunately the plant, upon completion, was discovered to be unstable and at risk of major earthquakes which could cause a catastrophic accident. To date the plant has not produced a single watt of electricity.

The country lacks a lot of power sources, and with the population rapidly growing and more businesses being established the demand for electricity will only increase. This has caused the average Filipino to be overwhelmed with skyrocketing electric bills.

This begs the question, with such poor production and distribution of power how does it cost so much? Even more than that of highly industrialized nations such as Japan and South Korea; the Philippines poses power rates which dwarfs those of our regional rivals Indonesia and Thailand.

The explanation however would be too broad and complicated for one article, but it all boils down to a growing population and economy which increases the demand for more power. Hesitation on the government’s side to invest in renewable energy sources have also taken a toll on the problem, as non-renewable sources such as coal and oil are imported and prices are at the mercy of fluctuating foreign exchange rates. And let’s not forget, withholding more capital to invest in new power plants and to upgrade existing ones also did not do us any favors.

This translates into a looming crisis the administration of Noynoy Aquino has to tackle, if his plan to leave a healthy economy to his successor is going to be a reality. The inefficiency of his as well as preceding governments’ response to the power problem of the country has is making the life of the average Juan difficult.

During election debates last year, candidates vying for a slot in the country’s Senate all blamed corruption, over-protective foreign ownership rules and terrorism for the lack of foreign investments in the country. They are not wrong for enumerating those reasons, but they did however miss out on mentioning another very important deterrent of foreign investors which is the high cost of electricity.

The past few years have been good times for the Philippine economy, posting healthy economic growth figures. All that despite high cost of production in the country, imagine how amazing the growth figures would be had our power rates been at par with Malaysia or Vietnam?

Bringing down cost of power benefits the economy a lot by making the country more attractive to investment and increasing productivity. But aside from businesses, the everyday Filipino ratepayer will benefit as well with added savings. This lightens the burden of paying for other necessities such as healthcare, tuition fees and rising transport costs.

Thankfully though, measures have been made to resolve or alleviate the power crisis. In fact, Mindanao is expected to be out of its’ red alert status and into normal levels by 2015. Aside from that, the region will also enjoy the cheapest power rates in the country as five new coal-powered plants are being built.

The Pagbilao Power Plant is also upgrading its’ capabilities, with a Php33B expansion being planned. Visayas on the other hand, is getting a greener facelift with the opening of a new solar power plant in San Carlos, Negros Occidental which will help ease the power woes of the region.

While all these developments are good and much-needed news, the rest of the country should take the lead of Visayas and focus on renewable, green energy sources to address our power needs.

Renewable sources are not dependent on foreign exchange rates, are not imported and will not leave a footprint on our environment. Not to mention, the Philippines is brimming with potential geothermal energy sites and is a leader in the use of hydroelectric power. We also have significant sources of wind and solar power which the government should look to augment.

These are cleaner, more efficient ways to address the energy problem – a measure which will only earn the praise of the international community for being a ‘green’ move. This is definitely a much better response than the government’s plea to ‘ration’ use of electricity. I would like to think that a country wanting to be called a prosperous one should not have to ration any supply. Of course, this does not mean that we can squander and waste our resources. But in the science of demand and supply, scaling back symbolizes a step backward – an act the Philippines needs to stop doing.

The power shortage may be a complicated issue, but the solutions are simple. We need to stop overloading Filipino households with overpriced electricity, and make our country more attractive to new businesses as well. In a prosperous Philippines, these goals need to become a reality.

 

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