• Sensible power options for the hinterland

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz16

    Already in the hotseat, thanks to the fashionable controversy created about its Torre de Manila condominium project, the DMCI Holdings conglomerate has incurred public ire with another of its endeavors, in this case, a proposal to replace a DMCI-operated 15-megawatt oil-fired power plant in Mobo, Masbate with a coal-fired version.

    Taking a cue from a similar controversy in Palawan at the end of last year, which saw environmentalists and civic groups successfully—at least for now—blocking DMCI Power’s proposed small coal plants there, the 31,000-strong Masbate Talks group has moved to thwart DMCI’s plans in their province. The group crafted a petition to the Provincial Board demanding that the proposal be rejected in favor of a renewable energy option like solar power, and just generally raising hell about the issue in the social and local media.

    DMCI Power’s objectives are fairly obvious. DMCI controls Semirara Mining Corporation (SMC), which is the only coal-mining enterprise of any consequence in the country; it makes economic sense for the company to expand its own market beyond the Calaca power plant in Batangas (which is operated by a fully-owned subsidiary of SMC) to maximize supply chain efficiency.

    What DMCI’s plan has going for it is economy; coal-powered generation is familiar, reliable technology, inexpensive to build and maintain, compared with most other forms of generation, particularly renewable energy, and would cut fuel costs for the same amount of power from Mobo’s existing oil plant by roughly 80 percent.

    Its disadvantages are primarily environmental, and these are the grounds on which activists elsewhere have successfully interrupted development of coal power. While so-called “clean coal” technology does produce less pollution than older versions of coal-fired generating plants, it still is generally regarded as one of the least environmentally-friendly energy alternatives, producing large amounts of ash, gases such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxide, and waste water. Masbateños are also concerned that the proposed plant would be located adjacent to a residential area and less than a kilometer from the Buntod Marine Sanctuary.

    The alternatives suggested to the provincial government, however, solar or wind power, are not feasible options—current technology simply doesn’t allow them to be useful as primary grid power, they are expensive to build and maintain, and while they are non-polluting, they have other weird, detrimental effects on the environment and the people who have to live with them—such as low-frequency noise emitted by windmills, and intense localized air heating caused by large solar installations—that researchers are only beginning to understand. And neither is, at this point in the technologies’ development, reliable as base grid power. They are great for small-scale off-grid power and supplemental power, provided there is a base source available for when adverse weather conditions (or nightfall) prevents them from operating.

    Unfortunately for the “anti-coal” lobby, DMCI has a distinct advantage in the absence of a competitive idea, and the Provincial Board of Masbate cannot be faulted for being practical. On the one hand, they are presented a proposal which, environmental risks aside, will provide reliable power in a short time frame at a reasonable cost, and on the other, they are being asked to consider a more expensive option that will be more complicated to operate, will require more maintenance, and will still need some kind of conventional back-up system. All of these factors erode the economic advantage of the zero fuel cost of these forms of renewable energy, an advantage, which, in any case can only be realized after the very high upfront costs of construction are absorbed. Provided the builder/operator of the proposed coal plant can be held to strict standards to mitigate environmental harm, the decision is really a no-brainer from a public policy point of view.

    But because the proposed scale of the power project is relatively small, there may be a realistic renewable energy alternative, which the provincial government should seriously consider; even if the national government only pays lip service to “its commitment to renewable energy,” for the sake of its own community the local government of Masbate need not follow the brainless lead of Manila.

    The agricultural sector of Masbate provides an opportunity to utilize biomass as a fuel source, using coconut husk, rice hulls, dedicated crops such as ipil-ipil trees (something that was tried but failed to prosper in the mid-1980s under a US government-supported program), or even animal waste—Masbate is cattle country, after all.

    Biomass is not nearly as efficient as coal or petroleum as fuel, and it is not as “clean” as fuel-less technology such as solar, wind, or geothermal power, but it is a renewable fuel source that would in all likelihood otherwise go to waste. More importantly, it is reliable—a biomass plant won’t stop generating when it’s raining, or at night, or when the wind stops blowing—and it is already in use at approximately the same scale it would be applied in Masbate: The San Carlos, Negros Occidental biomass plant recently began operating, fueled by waste from sugar milling operations, and at least two more plants are planned for the province.

    Fortunately for their cause (and perhaps unfortunately for DMCI Power), the Masbateño activists have seemed to adopt the idea of biomass power as an alternative to coal, and seem likely to push for the option to at least be subjected to a feasibility study before a final decision is made by the provincial government. Biomass energy may not, when a proper analysis is completed, turn out to be the right answer; that is a possibility that both the people and local government in Masbate have to objectively consider. But even if that is eventually the result, they can at least be confident that whatever decision is made is the right one for their community and its circumstances, which is confidence that very few in Masbate have right now.



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    1. Energy is a basic need of the country but besides putting up a department the government has done nothing to ensure its development commensurate to requirements of its citizens for household and more especially for business. Pnoy has just delivered a speech at the UN on climate change so to be true to his pronouncements we must pursue clean energy. The government cannot leave to private initiative this endeavor because of the high cost of clean energy power plants. It must take the cudgels as it is the only one capable.