|Wednesday, 11 April 2012|
Dark energy is the mysterious force recently discovered to make up 73% of the universe's energy and cause its expansion at an accelerating rate, yet scientists admit they hardly know anything else about.
The term seems to resonate strongly in the Philippines today, but more in relation to the historical Dark Ages, what with daily power outages lasting half an hour to six hours each, plaguing various cities of Mindanao, power rates rising, and the dim clouds of uncertainty hanging over the country's energy policy. Meanwhile, abundant yet affordable and ecologically sustainable power appears bleak under current government plans and programs.
With its average demand at 1,300 MW, Mindanao suffered most during the past few years from power supply deficits reaching over 500 MW in 2010 and even 360 MW or 28% of demand last March. Amid calls for investigations in Congress and resignation of top government energy officials, the Department of Energy (DOE) claimed that it has succeeded in narrowing the gap to 160 MW this April by issuing a department circular directing electric cooperatives to "nominate their needed power to supply their demands." In practice, this means to source their shortfalls in power supply from the diesel-powered barges of Aboitiz Corporation's Therma Marine previously privatized or bought from the government.
At first glance, this arm-twisting seems to do the job of quickly addressing the power supply problem. But then, just as this supposed solution cuts down the supply gap, it also aggravates another equally important concern: affordability.
To a large extent, the supply shortages behind the brownouts were caused by the government's reduction, often by half, of the allotments of cheaper power from the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) to cooperatives supplying the provinces. The national government then cajoled these cooperatives to draw their shortfalls from the expensive supply offered by the privatized barges. Reluctant to pay for more costly power, many electric cooperatives were forced to cut back on the power they distributed to cities and towns, giving rise to the brownouts. In a press conference, Malacaņang's deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte put it bluntly: "you must choose between having no power supply at all or bearing with high prices." This led governors to suspect that the brownouts are artificial and meant partly to compel electric cooperatives and end-consumers to accept the higher power prices, as well as the privatization of the remaining government-owned power barges.
The national government sweetened the offer, cushioning the price hikes by mixing them with the lower NGCP prices. Although the barge power rates alone reach as high as PhP 14 per kwh during peak periods, the added costs are diluted to between 50 and 80 centavos per kwh. Still, the power rates from the privatized barges are 25-40% higher than the former PhP 2 per kwh and thus burdensome to households and businesses.
Unfortunately, the seemingly promotional prices may be just that, short-lived, as the National Power Corporation has authorized in Mindanao new power hikes of PhP 4.42 per kwh this coming May, from PhP 2.93 to PhP 7.35 per kwh, more than doubling power rates.
Industrial and consumer groups in Mindanao decry the loss of what they consider to be the region's drawn-out historical economic advantage of lower power costs driven primarily by reliance on hydroelectric power and the traditionally plentiful water resources.
The dwindling of Mindanao's once plentiful power supply largely centers on the fast-deteriorating state of its hydroelectric power, which used to shoulder 50-70% of its electricity needs. As early as the early 1950s, dam and hydroelectric plants were set up in Lanao del Norte and Bukidnon utilizing the Agus and Pulangi rivers. Ideally, these dams should have been maintained efficiently as part of ecologically sustainable watershed and river basin systems. But the 1950s also set the stage for the wanton extraction and export of Mindanao's natural resources, especially its forest wealth, during the decade and beyond. The heavy soil erosion in logged-over areas led to the siltation of Lake Lanao, and the Agus and Pulangi rivers, and weakened the power generating capacity of the hydroelectric plants. For instance, in the case of the Pulangi IV plant that began operating in 1985, 1.5 million square meters of sediment poured into its reservoirs each year, recently filling up 23 million cubic meters or 34% of its combined 67 million cubic meters capacity.
What has sparked even more public discomfiture in Mindanao is the national government's move in line with the Energy Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) to privatize the Agus-Pulangi power plants. Business, civic and various civil society organizations registered their strong opposition to this policy, warning that it would lead to higher and even more burdensome energy prices.
Through the years, funds that should have been laid out for adequately maintaining the watersheds, repair and rehabilitation of the hydroelectric plants, and the dredging and diking of the dams were diverted by the lure of Official Development Assistance (ODA, or low-interest foreign loans). In many cases, there were reported financial kickbacks received for ecologically destructive energy projects, such as power plants fired by fossil fuels and other dirty fuels. One of these was the overpriced white elephant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. What would appear highly anomalous was that even as the Philippine government already signed on to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and launched its Philippine Agenda 21 for Sustainable Development, it put into practice instead the policy of beefing up its energy generation and supply by principally relying on unsustainable energy, including fossil fuel.
While the government did promote energy technologies considered renewable or naturally-replenishing such as geothermal and large dams and hydropower, many of these projects could not be entirely considered socially and ecologically sustainable since these were built or targeted for building in ancestral lands of indigenous communities and in critical watersheds. Meanwhile, large dams were also been found to exacerbate climate change through methane emissions, as well as vulnerability to climate change in the form of intensified drought.
That conventional pattern of energy unsustainability does not seem to have been altered so far under the new administration of President Aquino. In response to calls for DOE Secretary Jose Almendras' resignation, he sought to calm public fears, announcing that by 2014 and 2015, the government would have solved the power supply problem by putting into operation two coal-fired plants with a combined capacity of 250 MW, along with a large hydro-power plant (Pulangi 5). But this declaration failed to put the public mind at ease. On the contrary, civil society networks questioned what they believe to be President Aquino's reneging on his campaign promise to champion sustainable energy in the country.
What seems to be a blessing in disguise in the unfolding events is the vibrant public clamor for the country's decisive shift to renewable and sustainable energy, specifically wind, solar, micro-hydro, and ocean energy. Civil society organizations called attention to what they regard as deliberate foot-dragging by the national government during the last three years in implementing the policy of feed-in-tariffs (FIT), whereby the government sets fixed premium support prices for sustainable energy generated. This paralysis allegedly discouraged private investors from generating wind, solar, micro-hydro and ocean energy enterprises and output, thus helping further consign renewable energy (RE) to a tiny and marginal share of 0.25% of the country's energy mix, or a measly 1 out of every 400 kwh. Civil society groups also questioned government decisions further reducing already low targets for RE production - to 50 MW from the proposed 150 MW for solar, and to 200 MW from 220 MW for wind - rather than raising these targets massively.
And yet, these technologies carry the advantage of multiple and integrated benefits in terms of quality of life for people in Mindanao and the rest of the country: abundant renewable supplies if sustainably harnessed, rapid and continuing gains in affordability together with price security because these are locally sourced, and their association with human and environmental health and productivity.
More than any other form of hydro energy, micro-hydro energy technology, small-scale and generating usually no more than 100 kwh, is ecologically and socially sustainable. Mindanao's rich network of streams makes micro-hydro potentially available for many rural communities, and can be managed independently. Around two years ago, ESSC established a micro-hydro facility in Sitio Bendum, Bukidnon, northern Mindanao to support the activities of the Apu Palamguwan Cultural Education Center with the Pulangiyen community.
Solar energy is a good complement to micro-hydro, since drier conditions allow greater sunlight to compensate for less rainfall. Individual homes and offices can avail of solar panels providing energy off-grid, while solar plants providing 50 MW or more can supply additional power to the grid supplying the industries. Already, technologies such as molten salt storage allow solar technologies to use their power up to 10 hours during nighttime, such as in Nevada, USA. Government R&D would do well to devise and indigenize solar and other RE technologies.
According to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Philippines (especially areas totaling one million hectares) can conservatively support a potentially installed capability of 70,000 MW of wind energy, nearly seven times that of all energy used today nationwide. This area includes eastern Mindanao and to a lesser extent, Bukidnon and Cotabato. The energy that can be generated in eastern Mindanao can be connected to supply a Mindanao-wide power grid.
Ocean energy technology is projected to potentially provide over 100,000 MW in the country, but remains underdeveloped. Given its potential, it would still be worthwhile for the country to engage substantially in its research.
Altogether in the midst of the dark energy governing energy policy, it is imperative for the government and country to muster the needed political will to effect a sea change in its energy strategy, adopt a more proactive, integrative and long-term visionary approach to the problem of brownouts, and meaningfully engage empowered communities and civil society in realizing the bright hopes for renewable and sustainable energy in the country's future.