The energy crisis in the Philippines

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

I can still remember vividly the worst energy crisis that I lived through back in 1973 and 1979. That was the Middle East oil crisis when the Middle Eastern countries suddenly decided to retake control of their oil industry and oil prices skyrocketed together with severe shortages. In the Philippines, we did not have any independent oil source and the result was the long, long line of vehicles at every gas station. Many gas stations even closed because of lack of supply.

As a side story, I was lucky because my wife had a cousin who owned a gas station. I remember going in the middle of the night so that they could clandestinely give us gasoline without anyone knowing. So we were spared the agony of lining up for hours to get rationed gasoline at then ridiculously high prices.

Today we are approaching a repetition of that scenario where for a variety of reasons like wars, climate change and greed, oil-exporting countries have refused to increase their oil production so that they can exploit the increase in oil prices. While the short-term effect of artificial oil shortages and exploitative oil price increases places a terrible burden on populations all over the world, the long-term effect is just as negative. The worst effect will be again the delay on the shift towards renewable energy as companies and nations are already trying to find a way to ramp up fossil fuel projects that can be operational as soon as possible. The already existing poor response to the climate crisis will even be worse as governments find an excuse to transfer resources from renewable energy to fossil fuels that will generate more poisonous emissions into the atmosphere.

In the urgency to find immediate solutions to this looming energy crisis, governments and consumers will be tempted to engage in projects that may even be considered dangerous. An example is that in the Philippines, there are now discussions to revive the Bataan-based nuclear plant. This specific nuclear power plant was closed due to its proximity to an earthquake belt, which could therefore cause serious disaster.

For those who are interested, there is a newly published book, “Atoms and Ashes” by Serhii Plokhy. This is an account of the world’s six worst nuclear accidents today. A recent book review said it “captures those occasions with haunting drama.” Among those accidents discussed in detail is the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll, a group of islands in the South Pacific. The other stories include that of a reactor on fire at Windscale in northwest England, the infamous nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.

The author states that nuclear accidents are inevitable. He also argues that nuclear power should be allowed to “drift into disuse rather than give it a new role in the fight against climate change.”

The proponents of nuclear power, however, believe that it is possible to set up climate-friendly nuclear power plants and to make them easier to build. It should be noted that renewable energy is becoming cheaper and may ultimately produce power cheaper than nuclear plants.

For example, according to The Economist, a new power plant in Britain is expected to produce electricity at $145 for every megawatt hour. The same amount of energy for a new offshore wind farm also in Britain is expected to cost $60 per megawatt hour. This proves that renewable energy can produce energy at a lower cost than nuclear power. The problem is that governments are facing the political problem of producing solutions sooner than later.

Energy policy makers should be aware of the severity of greenhouse gas emissions of different sources of power. The top three worst sources ranked according to their severity are coal, oil, and natural gas.

On the other hand, the most climate-friendly sources of power, ranked according to their amount of greenhouse gas emissions are solar, nuclear and wind. To show the huge difference between the worst and the least source of gas emissions, coal produces 800 CO2 equivalent per gigawatt hour (GWH) of electricity produced, while solar, nuclear and wind produce 4-5 CO2 equivalent per GWH of electricity produced.

The future of nuclear power lies in the new types of reactors that are now in their experimental stages. According to The Economist, “… these small modular reactors (SMRS) promising as these may be, are still for the most part at early stages of development.”

Unless the Philippines is willing to risk a nuclear disaster due to an accident, the most practical solution is increasing its sources of natural gas. The only source now is the Malampaya. Natural gas is still not ideal because its level of greenhouse emission is approximately 500 CO2 equivalent of electricity produced.

There are reportedly rich potential sources of natural gas in the West Philippine Sea. The ideal solution on the medium to long-term basis in the Philippines is the expansion of renewable energy especially solar, wind and possibly geothermal. In this way, our country may yet become self-sufficient in sources of energy at the same time keep greenhouse gas emissions to a basically negligible level.

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