Electricity blackouts can mar Election Day
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - April 12, 2019 - 12:00am

Classrooms used as polling precincts mostly are dark and humid. Electric fans and rechargeable lamps that election-supervising teachers plug in do little to allay voters’ anxiety. But what if power outages hit entire cities and provinces on Election Day? Voting machines will run on back-up batteries to continue taking in ballots, issuing individual voter receipts, and counting votes. Still suspicions of large-scale fraud will spread; government explanations and election results will be rejected. Civil unrest could erupt.

Crisis is not farfetched. Summer has just begun, yet power already is conking out from overheat. Longer blackouts lie ahead than this week’s in Greater Manila. Things have been worsening in recent months, in fact, in Central Luzon, Zamboanga Peninsula, and Southern Mindanao.

The Dept. of Energy (DoE) blamed Wednesday’s outages on bad luck. Three Luzon generator plants, totaling 827 megawatts, already shut down weeks ago for periodic maintenance. Then what could go wrong did. Starting last week to that day four other plants broke down, losing 1,352 mw in all. Two more plants, both deteriorated, de-rated output of 250 mw. The National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) raised a red alert midmorning, unable to transmit enough electricity to Luzon’s dozens of distributors. By noon Meralco’s franchise area, 70 percent of mainland consumers, started blacking out for an hour. It spread to the rest. Hit were Quezon City, Valenzuela, Malabon, Navotas, Caloocan in Metro Manila; Abra in Northern Luzon; Bulacan, Tarlac, and Bataan in Central Luzon; Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, and Quezon in Southern Tagalog; and Camarines Sur in Bicol.

Conspiracy theories arose that the outages were staged. Allegedly generating firms are arm-twisting the Energy Regulatory Commission for rate increases. Already they’ve upped their offers to the wholesale electricity spot market. By faking simultaneous breakdowns, the ERC supposedly would cave in. A senator is initiating an inquiry.

Yet outages occur every summer. Not only rate increases are pending at the ERC. Applications also are piling up for new power plants and supply deals with retailers. ERC’s backlog was due to long delay in replacing commissioners facing graft charges before the Ombudsman. For a year it had no quorum to conduct business.

More generators and supply deals would stabilize supply and prices. But even if ERC approves a plant today, startup would take three to five years. The DoE meanwhile must implement rotational blackouts. As well, make big industrial users produce their own electricity. For that DoE also must make oil companies sell cheap fuel.

There’s another serious cause of sudden blackouts other than power plant failures. Since 2012 high voltage from NGCP itself has been dropping. Its power transmissions slump during peak hours to distributors in Pampanga, Tarlac, Zambales, Bataan, and Nueva Ecija, all in Central Luzon. End users suffered frequent blackouts. NGCP transmissions of 150,000 to 230,000 volts must not fall below 0.9 percent. Supposedly it has solved the problem by installing more capacitors.

Yet in 2015-2016 NGCP voltage to Pampanga continued to slip. Last year Zamboanga City was affected too; so was South Cotabato last March. In January Bataan again suffered.

Distributors are complaining to ERC, because customers are blaming them for busted home appliances and business downtime. Mega Manila, with extremely high power demand, is likely to be hit this summer. NGCP has yet to install more capacitor banks as immediate solution, and substations in the medium-term.

At risk of voltage drops this hot summer is the Lingayen-to-Lucena corridor, the country’s most thickly populated, from Pangasinan and Central Luzon, to the national capital, and down to Southern Tagalog. That also is the most vote-rich area. The State Grid of China partly owns NGCP; any widespread blackout would be blamed on the northern neighbor.

ERC can compel NGCP to invest in much-needed upgrades. Then again, NGCP will hesitate if given no guarantee that ERC would allow it to raise charges to recover capital expenditures. From news reports the transmission firm has been explaining its predicament to the distributors.

In the end the DoE is answerable. Its job is to anticipate power demand, increase supply to support the economy, stabilize rates to suit consumers, and avert shortage. Stakeholders doubt DoE’s capability of late, however. In the wake of last week’s series of yellow alerts about possible power supply drops, it imposed gag orders on affected companies: generators, NGCP, distributors. The media and consumerists howled. It’s like the water concessionaire and the captured regulator giving all sorts of alibis for the recent shortage in east-south Greater Manila.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459, or The STAR website https://www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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