Prodded to action by the unexpected damage to Luzon’s electrical grid caused by Typhoon Glenda last week, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla, backed by at least two Senators, called on President B.S. Aquino 3rd to assume “emergency powers” to deal with what is quickly becoming a serious energy crisis in the country.
My instant reaction to the news was this: “The government has already created an emergency, why do they need special powers for that?”
The declaration may already be made by the time this column sees print, or will be very soon, and the only certain result any electric consumer in the Philippines can expect is that the power crisis will quickly go from bad to worse.
Consider what Petilla’s endorsement of “emergency powers” actually means. In effect, he is declaring that managing the country’s energy supply issues is beyond the capacity of the Department of Energy, or perhaps beyond his own capacity—that despite having wide authority to intervene in the electricity supply chain, he is unable to present any solutions to improve the availability and reliability of electric power in this country.
Actually, that is not entirely accurate; according to several news reports and a great deal of incredulous discussion online, Petilla has proposed that the government lease a number of “power barges” to augment dwindling electricity supplies. While these would (assuming they are actually available) provide some short-term relief, the trade-offs are the undesirable side effects of sourcing power from oil-fired generators—excessive pollution and a heightened risk of environmental damage, and fuel and operating costs that are a couple orders of magnitude higher than those for a more conventional coal- or gas-fired plant. In addition, the wisdom of using floating power stations in the typhoon-prone Philippines may be a little questionable; at the height of Super Typhoon Yolanda, one such power barge at Estancia, Iloilo broke loose from its moorings and ran aground, causing an oil spill that fouled about 10 kilometers of coastline and according to Estancia residents, is still not entirely cleaned up yet, eight months later.
The position of the government, of course, is that the power situation has become so critical that they are left with few options but to take advantage of the regulatory shortcuts a declaration of an emergency would provide in order to augment electric supply at the soonest possible time, ideally between now and the middle of next year. The power crisis we are experiencing now, however, was anticipated as long ago as 2008, when the shortage of electricity in Mindanao first became extremely critical.
By 2010 when Aquino took office, the power situation had not changed much at all, nor had the obvious solutions. To correct Mindanao’s chronic supply shortfall, new plants needed to be built, which would also solve the problem of over-reliance on hydroelectric power; in the case of the latter, the government—which owns most of Mindanao’s hydroelectric capacity through the National Power Corporation (Napocor)—needed to make a big investment in reconditioning and upgrading those aging facilities to improve their efficiency and reliability. The Visayas also was short of power, but due to the fragmented nature of the region, the problem was not as noticeable. Some new capacity needed to be built, but because the demand on any one generation facility, at least outside major cities like Cebu or Iloilo, was much smaller, there was a greater opportunity to pursue more sustainable energy projects like biomass, solar, and geothermal plants.
And in Luzon, the problem was not so much capacity—hypothetically, there was enough generating capacity to cover needs until about 2022—but the poor condition of many power plants, which meant that they could regularly supply only a part of their designed capacity. The obvious solution here was to implement and strictly enforce a workable performance-based regulation program, so that power producers would have incentives to improve reliability and minimize costs, invest in the few remaining Napocor assets to improve their performance, and build some additional capacity to ensure that a safe buffer supply could be maintained as electricity demand grew.
Four years and two energy secretaries later, the overall situation is exactly the same, and very little of what is actually a relatively simple set of solutions has actually been implemented. If there is now an emergency, it is because the Aquino Administration has mishandled—or perhaps more accurately, failed to handle at all—the task of ensuring the nation’s energy requirements are met.
We will, of course, have to wait to see what the President and Mr. Power Barge Petilla will do with their “emergency powers”; it is conceivable, though not likely, that they could surprise us with some practical ideas. At this point, however, their record of poor performance in addressing power concerns strongly suggests that all “emergency powers” will do is to allow them to screw things up even faster.