LGUs and our power problem
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - April 29, 2019 - 12:00am

We often blame the power industry for the precarious supply and demand balance that results in blackouts. The leftists are specially noisy because they have an opportunity to blame the private business sector for the problem.

To be fair, government failure, from national to local, is why we are in danger of power blackouts today, specially during peak hours.

 First of all, President Duterte could have appointed people with better knowledge and experience in energy to run the Department of Energy and the Energy Regulatory Board.

Related agencies like TransCo could also have done more to help the private sector NGCP in assuring adequate transmission capacity. A true partnership gets more things done for the good of the public.

For instance, TransCo could have helped NGCP get its permits approved by LGUs. TransCo should also expeditiously expropriate land needed for transmission line right of way. Land with problematic titles should just be expropriated anyway to allow work to start. We can deal with the owners later once a proper court determines who they are.

All these are the proper duties of TransCo under the current private concession agreement. TransCo seems more interested in picking fights with NGCP that does the public interest no good.

LGUs have been a tough problem. Mayors and governors make it very difficult for energy companies to put up the power plants and power lines needed to assure adequate power supply for the nation.

These are the same mayors and governors who are also making it difficult for the telcos to put up the necessary towers for a respectable broadband service.

A President who claims having political will should have taken tough steps to make LGU officials cooperate or make them suffer the same fate of that mayor responsible for Boracay’s degradation.

It’s not a new problem. Former energy secretary Icot Petilla had complained to me about how difficult it is for power plant proponents to get permits from LGU units, like those in Quezon province where many power plants were being built at that time.

Icot said that he had to appoint an undersecretary with political experience to deal with the LGUs or else the country’s major power grids would not have sufficient power. That is something the current energy secretary should have done.

Since Sec Al Cusi has a politician as one of his undersecretaries, he could have been better utilized to work with LGU officials getting permits for power projects. Usec Wimpy’s talents are wasted as a spokesman.

Take this submarine cable connecting Negros to Cebu which has a rather small capacity of 180 MW. Yet, Cebu needs all the power it can get.

The power that a 132.5 MW solar farm in Negros can produce has nowhere to go now. Negros demand is rather low. It should be able to send its production to Cebu, if that submarine cable had more capacity.

That Negros to Cebu line is being upgraded to two more lines of 450 MW each and ready for connection to Cebu via Toledo City. The cable is just stored in Europe waiting for availability of the cable landing station.

Problems have been encountered getting the construction permit on the Toledo side. Construction is already ongoing on the Negros side. Toledo is critical because another transmission line will go through there also to benefit the rest of the province.

Unless the Toledo mayor facilitates granting that permit, we will waste investment in that transmission line project already made. We are also wasting the P10 million investment in the Negros solar power farm. Our national economy cannot afford such wastes.

This convinces me even more the folly of federalism. We cannot afford to have too many local kingpins with powers to slow down economic development.

A strongman leader like Duterte should push his development projects with or without the cooperation of LGU officials. I think he doesn’t even know about these problems. He isn’t that hands-on. I am sure if the President is made aware, he will act decisively.

But three years are gone in Duterte’s watch and he has done little to help push infra projects in NEDA, his own Cabinet and in LGUs.

Then again, all is not lost. We have enlightened LGU officials like Mayor Rex Gatchalian in Valenzuela. Mayor Gatchalian is working together with NGCP to fast track the construction of vital transmission lines.

One is the San Jose – Quezon 230kv Line 3 Project, started in 2012 and must be energized by December 2019. It is a vital line, designed to provide an additional transfer capacity of 1200MW (from powerplants to Metro Manila via San Jose Substation).  It also provides redundancy during single line outage.

The schedule calls for all sites to be workable by June 2019. But the sites are full of informal settlers.

To help get the project going, Mayor Rex expropriated around four hectares inside the city for relocation of the squatters. The Valenzuela LGU signed a memorandum of agreement with NGCP last year committing the LGU to provide the land. NGCP will fund Gawad Kalinga to build the houses for the settlement at a cost of some P200 million.

NGCP said this is a template, the first of its kind in the country, that showcases how LGUs and infrastructure developers can work together.

Mayor Gatchalian also assured NGCP of a fast turn-around time in the grant of permits.

The other vital project NGCP must do is the Navotas – Marilao Transmission Line. It provides an additional transmission corridor to address the demand in Metro Manila and supply from Bataan plants. It provides an additional electricity hi-way to Metro Manila other than the San Jose Substation.

This project, started in 2017 should be delivered by February 2021.

As we can see, we do not only need power plants to assure our power supply in the Luzon Grid, but also adequate transmission capability as well. Most people tend to forget that.

This is why we ought to closely monitor what NGCP is or is not doing because if they drop the ball, we are also screwed.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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