An energy-independent motherland?

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SASS ROGANDO SASOT

First of 2 parts
ON August 9, I interviewed Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos about the inspiring renewable energy story of their province. Ilocos Norte is home to the Bangui and Burgos wind farms, admired both for their aesthetics and pioneering stature, not just in our country but in Southeast Asia. Last year, with the passage of Provincial Resolution 017-2016, coal was banned in Ilocos Norte, making it the first province to phase it out. As I told Gov. Marcos, the whole nation should seriously learn from their experience.

Sustainability is one of the global challenges we extensively covered in my undergraduate studies here in The Hague. All the scholars and pundits we engaged with in our readings and lectures had the same message: our world must become less dependent on fossil fuel.

Yet in our country, oil is inching its way to be the No. 2 source of electricity next to coal, another fossil fuel. This spot, in terms of generation capacity, used to belong to hydropower, an indigenous resource.

Based on data from the Department of Energy (DOE), as of 2016, oil is a hairline away in overshadowing hydropower in the country’s power mix, with installed capacity of oil-based power plants at 3,616 megawatts (MW) and hydropower at 3,618MW. Coal, hyped as the “cheapest” source, is a faraway leader at more than 7,400MW in capacity.


Why so much oil when it is the worst choice—economically, environmentally, and in terms of long-term national security? Why does our electric power system continue to need oil generation capacity? The short and long answer will surprise many.

And the answer is: coal power plants.

In an electricity market, supply and demand must always be balanced. Our power demand varies significantly during the 24 hours of each day. Coal plants are “baseload” plants, so-called because, while they yield continuous electricity supply, they require a minimum level of power generation and are barely turned off save for periodic maintenance, improvements, and repair.

Flexible generation that follows varying moment-to-moment demands are required to match a baseload plant. Coal power plants do not have this flexibility. Thus, they require oil generation, which is responsive enough, to fill this role in the electricity grid.

Consequently, the more coal plants are constructed, the more oil plants are also needed to be built. And since 2011, they both have been increasing almost proportionately in our country.

Furthermore, according to experts, the proliferation of coal plants, because they are inherently inflexible, would make the grid integration of emerging renewable energy (RE) like solar and wind even more difficult. Coal plants cannot be turned on and off to cope with intermittent RE supply.

Thus, having more cheap coal actually means needing more expensive oil plants. This means that coal is in fact not cheap. Then factor in the external costs, which, in our country, are currently not included in what consumers pay.

In economics, an external cost, or “externality,” is a negative effect of an economic activity to the environment or society. Some of the negative externalities of coal mining includes toxic waste, water and air pollution, degradation of ecosystems and ill-effects to human health.

Affordable energy is a precursor to economic growth. Sadly, our country’s increasing energy demand is outpacing our generation capacity. This unfortunate reality, however, is that a whopping 70 percent of the 5,000MW of new power plants that are being built and will be built until 2020 are coal-based, as per DOE data.

This does not augur well for the country because we are locking ourselves into the heavy baggage of coal brought by imported oil and its negative externalities. When more coal plants are built, we also could end up locking out alternatives that we can produce on our own shores. This pernicious cycle of dependence on importing oil—imports that are both expensive and polluting—needs to be curbed.

To do this, like Ilocos Norte, the rest of the country needs to move away from coal as a source of electricity onto a new energy path.

Our country needs a pathway to increase dramatically the share of its renewable energy sources, which we already have on our own: ample sunshine, windy areas, raging rivers, and a high volume of biomass waste derived from agriculture.

So, where do we go from here?

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