After basic shelter and a reliable supply of clean water, the most obvious critical infrastructure priority for the areas wrecked by last month’s Typhoon Yolanda is the restoration of electricity.
Just days after the storm, once an initial assessment of the havoc the storm wreaked on the electrical grid was done, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla gamely promised that electric supply would be restored before Christmas. He quickly added the caveat, however, that government’s responsibility ended at the distribution utilities, in keeping with the Adminis-tration’s theme that the disaster is primarily a local problem.
That point of view is not necessarily improper, but it is not terribly helpful, either. The various electric cooperatives and other service providers across the nation’s midsection were themselves victims of the calamity. At best, they were left with completely wrecked distribution systems, and in most cases, they suffered the loss of many of their skilled people and considerable damage to their key facilities. While not dismissing the formidable challenge faced by the DOE in repairing the primary electrical grid, the task of rebuilding the systems that deliver electricity to homes and businesses is several orders of magnitude more complicated, and should not be so lightly dismissed by the government.
The big risk is that with limited resources, local distribution utilities are simply not going to be able to restore their networks to their pre-storm state, let alone create robust systems that can better withstand natural disasters. And simply restoring an electrical infrastructure that was an inefficient, expensive drain on local economies before the disaster is obviously only going to serve to handicap any efforts to revitalize those places.
If the Aquino Administration is at all sincere in wanting to dispel the impression it has created – that its priority in the disaster recovery is to paper over the social, economic, and physical damage as quickly as possible – then there are several energy initiatives in which it could participate that would have immediate and comprehensive positive results.
The first, and probably the most detailed plan, for which I should thank fellow Manila Times columnist Thelma Dumpit-Murillo for tipping me off to, is a project by a group called Solar Power Philippines led by Mr. Raul C. Alcazar, who describes the group as a collection of “solar professionals, electrical engineers and plain solar and renewable energy enthusiasts”, which proposes to install solar power systems in a number of municipalities in Leyte. The initial plan is for solar power to be provided to municipal halls in the towns of Tolosa, Dulag, Julita, Burauen, and Dagami, with the project to be extended, hopefully, to other areas if the necessary resources can be obtained.
The second initiative is similar to the first, and is being pursued by the Society for Sustainable Tourism and Development, Inc. (SSTDI) in Coron, Busuanga and the Calamianes Islands, on the opposite – and so far, sadly, largely ignored – end of Typhoon Yolanda’s trail of destruction from the Leyte-Samar area. SSTDI points out that even before Yolanda the Coron area had an unstable power supply, and that it will now be months before even that is restored; by implementing solar power installations where possible, the group believes it can help the people of the area return to something like normal livelihoods faster while reducing pressure on the environment and simplifying the local utility concern’s task of rebuilding.
The third initiative, which as far as I know has not yet been suggested by anyone else, is to expand the use of pre-paid electrical systems in the affected areas once electrical supply capacity is rebuilt. Despite hopeful promises by the government to rebuild livelihoods quickly, programs like the proposed “cash-for-work” scheme that might provide temporary employment for 200,000 people (out of as many as 2.5 million who may be at least temporarily jobless, according to an estimate from the UN), are not nearly enough. Pre-paid electricity systems – such as the one provided by local industry leader Xen Energy Systems – can provide a bit of economic relief in two ways; first, pre-paid systems reduce electricity costs for households, or at the very least, make the management of those costs easier within variable household budgets. Second, having pre-paid customers reduces the financial burden on distribution utilities in a variety of ways – reduced manpower costs (pre-paid and smart electric meters do not need to be physically read, for one thing), reduced system loss, and reduced management and accounting costs.
Where government can help in these initiatives is in underwriting the materials and labor needed to put these systems into place. The solar energy initiative by Solar Power Philippines, for example, has a specific wishlist for which it is seeking private-sector help: Provision, warehousing, and transport to worksites of a specific bill of materials (to eliminate any transparency concerns, the group wishes to avoid handling funds directly), and underwriting of wages for local workers the group will hire to assist in installations, and who will receive training in maintenance of the systems. In the case of pre-paid electric systems, the government can underwrite or guarantee the capital outlays for the electric cooperatives to obtain the pre-paid meters and associated components of the system.
Unfortunately, the attitude and record of the Administration thus far towards anything that could even remotely be considered “alternative” energy does not give us much hope that it will suddenly grow an imagination and show any enthusiasm for supporting these projects. Solar energy is a non-starter as far as the Aquino Administration is concerned, even to the extent of the President himself mocking it in his most recent State of the Nation Address. And while pre-paid electricity has finally been deployed on a larger than testing scale in a few areas in recent months, the bureaucratic and regulatory morass the initiative had to overcome delayed its launch to actual consumers for over a year, which does not give anyone much confidence that the government could make the necessary arrangements quickly enough to do the affected consumers in the reconstruction areas much good.
Those, however, are unhelpful postures on the government’s part that can be instantly changed, and should be. While it is encouraging that the Administration has expressed a desire for smart rehabilitation, such as proposing shoreline easements, replanting of mangrove buffers, and calling for “resilient” housing, it has yet to put its money where its mouth is. The number of our Visayan neighbors who devote a fair amount of their correspondence with the rest of us who still enjoy the basic features of civilization bemoaning the absence of lights, electric fans, and washing machines suggests electricity would be a good place for the government to start demonstrating a capability for actual service rather than lip service.