Brewing dark days ahead

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

With very thin power supply reserves, what happens when unexpectedly 19 power plants in Luzon and 13 power plants in Visayas all conk out on the same time?

Such forced power outage exactly took place last Tuesday when the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) raised red and yellow alert status in its Luzon and Visayas transmission grids. Under red alert status, power supply is insufficient to meet consumer demand. Yellow alert, on the other hand, is raised when the operating power reserve is insufficient to meet the transmission grid’s contingency requirement.

The Energy Regulatory Commission headed by chairperson Monalisa Dimalanta issued a statement yesterday saying it would investigate the recent forced outages of several power plants. With the brewing power crisis in our country, where is Department of Energy Secretary Raphael “Popo” Lotilla whose office is mandated to supervise the power generators?

The Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) deregulated power generation. The ERC, created by EPIRA, limited its jurisdiction to distribution and transmission companies.

Then why is ERC the one calling the shots here?

With not much electricity flowing through the NGCP transmission lines, the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) – as the biggest distribution utility in Luzon – is forced to implement its manual load dropping (MLD). Or, this is the rotating power interruptions in all Meralco-serviced areas in Metro Manila and nearby provinces in Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Quezon (Calabarzon).

In its statement, the NGCP blamed the forced power outage translated to the unavailability in the grid of 2,117.3 megawatts (MW). Peak demand in Luzon was 13,024 MW as against available capacity of 13,537 MW, while in the Visayas, peak demand was 2,440 MW vis-à-vis available capacity of 2,742 MW.

The next day, Meralco vice president for corporate communications and official spokesman Joe Zaldarriaga disclosed at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum that Meralco’s time-tested Interruptible Load Program (ILP) saved the day by preventing a much wider power supply interruption. Zaldarriaga credited the ILP as having provided 300-MW of electricity.

This is equivalent to a small baseload power plant that have a capacity of generating 300-MW. Such is more than enough to supply the electricity needs of several municipalities with as many as 650,000 households, according to Zaldarriaga. Meralco serves 100 cities and municipalities and roughly distributes an average of 80-MW per city/municipality, he estimated.

Zaldarriaga credited this “bayanihan spirit” of the ILP in abating a much serious power supply shortage problem since Meralco started it ten years ago.

Under the ILP, private establishments like malls and commercial buildings voluntarily switch off their electricity supply from Meralco and shift instead to using their own generator sets (gen-sets). Zaldarriaga cited the ILP now has already more than 100 big and small private establishments participating in this “bayanihan” spirit. He, however, clarified that ILP participants also get recovery costs for the diesel and bunker fuel used for their gen-sets. Per the set formula of the ERC, it is less than P0.0020 per kilowatt-hour (kwh) add-on rate to Meralco customers on the average.

“Inconsequential cost but saves a lot of households. So the cost of implementing ILP is shared by all so the impact (of power outage) to everyone is reduced,” Zaldarriaga explained to us.

“Our problem concerns capacity. We need more power plants online, we need more capacity moving forward [and] we need more energy that we can distribute,” Zaldarriaga urged. Given such a power supply capacity situation in the Philippines, Meralco adopts an effective “demand management” like the ILP, Zaldarriaga cited. Though it’s only a “stop-gap” emergency measure, he conceded.

Speaking at the same Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum, Meralco senior vice president and Chief Government and External Relations Paciano “Arnel” Casanova admitted the entire country is suffering much  from the continuing under-capacity of our power supply. According to Casanova, the Philippines could only provide as much as 27 gigawatts (GWs) of installed capacity.

As a consumer, am aware only of electricity usage in terms of watts. From google search, I learned 1,000 watts amount to 1 kwh; 1 million watts equal to 1 MW; and there are 1,000 MWs in 1 GW or 1 billion watts. So we could just imagine how many baseload power plants are needed to be installed to achieve a more-than-sufficient supply of electricity?

GW is a term used to represent the capacity of large power plants or several power plants, from coal-fired to hydro-electric, geo-thermal, fuel or bunker-fired plants, including nuclear. But nuclear is still far out in the horizon, in the case of the Philippines.

As of this stage, Meralco is still in the process of working out a memorandum of understanding for a “proof of concept” with UltraSafe Company of the United States on the latter’s modular micronuclear reactor plant proposal, Casanova disclosed. “It’s a new technology that would take about ten years or more but we are investing as early as now for the long-term human capital. So it will take some time,” Casanova conceded. For now, Casanova announced, Meralco has launched a scholarship program to send Filipino engineers to the US to study nuclear engineering.

With around 115 million population all using electricity, Casanova cited, the Philippines ought to have as much as 135 GWs of installed capacity. With such installed power supply capacity, Casanova believes, the Philippines could achieve an industrialized status, like its neighbors South Korea and Taiwan.

“We now need to create an industrial base and we need to provide reliable and affordable power in the countryside so that the industries will not crowd within the NCR and Calabarzon,” Casanova pointed out.

Casanova, who headed the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) during PNoy’s term, noted that the reliability and cost of power in the Philippines have been the major concern up to now of foreign and local investors and businessmen.

The same concerns on power supply haunted one administration after the other here in our country. Since he joined Meralco in 1989, Zaldarriaga could only dread the return of the “dark days” during those times in our country when we suffered eight to 12 hours-long blackouts.

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