When greed comes into grid

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - June 14, 2021 - 12:00am

The Luzon grid rotating blackouts were largely traced to the seasonal increased usage of electricity during the summer months just ended. This is the season when the generating capacities of hydroelectric power plants cannot be relied on due to low water levels at the dams. On the other hand, this is also the time of the year in our country when there is higher power demand due to increased usage of electric appliances from air-conditioners to fans, refrigerators and other coolers.

This is a seasonal situation that the power sector industry players know beforehand to determine the peak periods of the demand and supply schedule. Thus, there should be no reason for the series of power outages in the Luzon grid that started last May 31.

Last week’s rotating blackouts strongly indicated the unstable power supply situation in the Luzon grid. There were at least five baseload power plants of generating companies (gencos) that reportedly underwent unscheduled and unplanned shutdowns purportedly due to major technical troubles.

Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Alfonso Cusi apologized for these power interruptions. Cusi though could not help but lashed back at his critics. Cusi countered they were merely riding on the public outcry when the power cuts did not last more than three hours.

This was after the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) started the rotating blackouts at its Luzon Grid on the same day President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruling administration party PDP-Laban convened its national council meeting held in Cebu. As the highest elected official of the land, President Duterte is the nominal head of the PDP-Laban while Cusi is the party’s national council vice chairman. Consequently, Cusi came under fire not only from his disgruntled partymates but also from the political opposition. As Energy Secretary, Cusi was taken to task for his perceived “being busy in politics” while there was a brewing power supply crisis in Luzon.

Cusi’s woes did not end on the May 31 rotating blackouts when the NGCP raised the “Yellow” and “Red Alerts” one after the other in the next succeeding days. A “Red Alert” status is issued by the NGCP when contingency reserves reach zero. A “Yellow Alert” means power reserves are below the minimum level set by the regulator, often equivalent to the capacity of the largest running generating unit on the grid.

Ironically, the PDP-Laban party color is “Red” while they collectively call the opposition as “Yellow,” just saying.

Other than the resulting economic losses, these power interruptions are taking place dangerously during these times of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. More disconcerting, as far as business and industries affected is concerned, is the fact these rotating blackouts precariously disturbed also the on-going anti-COVID vaccination activities, specifically at the so-called NCR Plus.

The National Capital Region (NCR), consisting of the Metro Manila local government units (LGUs), and nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal compose the so-called NCR Plus. The same areas of the NCR Plus are also the franchised areas of the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco). With reduced power supply coming on stream from the NGCP, the private power utility firm resorted to manual load dropping, or rotational brownouts to protect the integrity of the Luzon Grid, Meralco official spokesman and vice president for corporate communications Joe Zaldarriaga explained.

Despite the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zaldarriaga confirmed the power consumption in the Meralco-franchised areas in the Luzon grid remains robust. For the entire year of 2019, he cited, the total consumption of electricity reached 7,740 megawatts (MWs). Last year, it reached 7,640 MWs, Zaldarriaga noted. Although many business establishments, factories and offices were temporarily suspended while some closed shops, Zaldarriaga surmised the greater demand for electricity have been more than offset by increased household power consumption from the work-from-home employees and workers.

As a matter of fact, Zaldarriaga disclosed, Meralco forecast power consumption would reach 7,799-MWs for this entire year. “We at Meralco, it’s our hope the policies will encourage the development and creation of new supply contracts, building of new power plants. As we know a lot of our plants are ageing. We really need capacity for a growing country. In terms of our economy, we’re starting to surge,” Zaldarriaga cited.

During the same Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news conference last week, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate committee on energy, warned the public that the “thin” power supply situation at the Luzon Grid would remain for the rest of this month until July. Gatchalian noted with concern the report that existing gencos serving Luzon Grid might still not be able to provide enough power supply to meet higher demand for electricity services.

At the virtual Senate public hearing he called last Thursday, Gatchalian deplored the reported P116.8 million estimated economic losses during the three successive days of power outages. From industry calculations, he noted, the Luzon Grid needs at least 2,000-MW of additional reserve capacity to forestall any unexpected breakdown of any power plant.

Likewise, Gatchalian rued, power outages adversely affected also the vaccination centers at the NCR Plus. In Valenzuela City, they had to do manual instead of the much faster digital or online registration, the Senator learned from his brother Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian. Last week’s brownouts caused longer waiting time and queueing of people from 45 minutes to more than two to three hours.

An economist by training, Gatchalian is worried for the projected “V-shape” economic recovery of the country from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. He fears this might get sidetracked by the looming power supply crisis.

With the power demand back to pre-COVID levels, greater supply capacity of the Luzon grid, not greed, is needed.

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