Blackouts
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - April 15, 2019 - 12:00am

It’s summer time in Manila, the season of beach holidays and halo-halo; of yellow thong bikinis and that fabled Brazilian wax; and of ice-cold beer and sizzling island flings. 

Sadly, before we can even pack our bags and head to our favorite beach destination, we have to deal with something else that’s synonymous with the season – crisis. 

Yes, Manila, summer is here and so are the crises, one after another. First, it was a water supply crunch. Now, we have a power supply shortage. I wonder what’s next.

It happens in the summer when El Nino is at its worse and demand for power surges because of the heat.

True enough, it is scorching hot as I write this. The thermometer reads 34 degrees Celsius. 

Last Friday night, a blackout hit the heart of Makati. Some shops had to close, and the usual watering holes, too.

A few weeks ago, we were grappling with a water shortage. Now we have a power supply crunch. Just how lucky can we get. Can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? Can’t we have both electricity and water? 

Welcome to Manila at the height of summer. 

The power crisis

What exactly happened? Our energy authorities, it seems to me, have not been on top of the situation.

In a press briefing on March 4, Department of Energy spokesperson and undersecretary Wimpy Fuentebella even assured the public that “supply is sufficient from March to June.”

Forty-eight hours later, the Luzon grid is placed on yellow alert because operating reserves dropped below the required contingency level. This meant that Luzon’s available capacity and peak demand were too close for comfort. 

Such a situation means that when a power plant suddenly bogs down, there could be rotational blackouts. And as Murphy’s law would have it, that was exactly what happened.

This isn’t new. In fact, it’s exactly the same situation during the time of then Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla and perhaps in previous administrations, too.

However, Petilla had the foresight to warn consumers months ahead that there was going to be a supply crunch in the summer. 

I can’t count how many times he did that. He sounded like a broken record and a bit too paranoid. He made a list of what can be done – to just use the air-conditioned systems at 25 degrees, to limit the use of electricity, to wear shorts and cooler clothes and many more. 

He gave these warnings even if the supply forecast at the time was enough for summer. He said there was no buffer in case a plant suddenly bogs down outside its scheduled shutdowns. 

This was what happened last week. At least four power plants – by some twist of fate  – went on unplanned shutdowns. The Luzon grid lost at least 1,000 megawatts. The energy department said it is investigating the matter. 

New power plants

If there were enough warnings, consumers and businesses could have prepared better. 

Of course, it’s not only the lack of warnings and mismanagement of the situation that led to the blackouts. 

It is obvious that the power supply situation in the country is really so precarious. If a power plant goes on unplanned shutdown, the Luzon grid is easily at risk. 

What we need are new power plants.

Some of the country’s power plants are so old, some as old as dirty old men. It’s not surprising that, perhaps, just like these men, these plants conk out too every now and then. Clearly, there’s an urgent need for new power plants, but the private sector’s investments have been hampered by regulatory challenges.

Some are complaining about the impasse at the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) over applications for power supply agreements. There are PSAs that have yet to be decided on by the ERC. 

Now, some of the country’s power players are going outside the country to expand. Their projects in the region are moving faster than their planned power plants here in the Philippines. Isn’t it ironic?

Here at home, businessmen who want to build power plants are facing bureaucratic inertia, red tape. and corruption. In the provinces, there are so many signatures needed – and they’re not “easy” to get. 

But we urgently need new power plants, just as we need new water sources. This is because our population has grown tremendously and continues to grow. There are now 105 million people in this country from only 50 million in the early ’80s. There are more people, there are more establishments, there are more economic activities.

Power shortage

A power supply shortage hit the country in the ’90s, but this was not surprising. It was after all a difficult period for the Philippines.  Democracy was just restored.

Decades later, however, we shouldn’t be suffering the same fate again. We should be moving forward, not backwards or in circles. But these blackouts tell us that we may be heading back to the dark times. Indeed, Friday’s blackout was more than just a dark night. It might actually be a metaphor for the gloomy times ahead. 

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales.

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