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Power asses

Jun Vallecera

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Economies are like households. When I was growing up, I did not really understand the concept that the President and his Cabinet collectively represent parental authority of some sort and that we as citizens of this country are its sons and daughters. Some countries have very strict parents, while some have more benevolent ones. The really unfortunate households have dictatorial figureheads, menacing in the conduct of their power and authority.

“It is not too hard to say that the Philippines needs more energy sources than are delivered at present by oil — and  coal-fed power plants.

Economies, as are households, own immense economic wherewithal and some are richer or poorer than others. In the Philippines, the economic managers have come out saying we are on track to hitting middle-income status as early as this year and that as long as local output growth is sustained, the $314 billion southeast Asian nation could achieve upper middle-income status by 2022. By upper middle-income economy is meant a country where the per capita income of the population ranges more or less from $4,000 to $13,000 a year.

I won’t hazard a guess as to how much comfort or happiness Filipino households generating income equal to $13,000 a year feels like. I suppose that’s a lot for one used to the rustic life of one in San Jacinto, Masbate or, like myself, in Hilongos, Leyte. We live pretty ordinary lives there making a living from tilling the land, fishing the inland waters of the Visayan Sea or serving with the current crop of local government officials at the municipio. Most people dream of working in a foreign land or perhaps join a band of merchant mariners, apart from minding the automotive shop, the Internet café or the ubiquitous sari-sari store that everyone patronizes on credit until the decrepit dang thing drops dead. Most of those who leave to study in Cebu, Tacloban or Manila never come back and prefer to begin a new life in a strange city where everything, starting with the table salt, is purchased on cash basis. Then there is that roof over your head to think about, the food and water on the table and the electricity to light up that few square meters of habitable city space called the rented room, all paid for with money from your employer or your own business endeavor.

Experience has taught many of us that hard work pays, that relying on your own skillsets rather than on others pays dividends. In the little Leyte town where I grew up, progress was very slow until people could make commercial transactions way past 6 p.m. when the sun sets and the dark eats up everyone and their dreams for a better life. Then one enterprising family put up a diesel-powered generating plant and connected the households with electric power from 6 p.m. to 12 midnight initially, then overnight until the Tongonan geothermal field was tapped and electricity could be had 24/7. The place ramped up the local government scale from a fourth- or fifth-class municipality to its current stature as a second-class one.

The quality of service from the municipio has ramped up as well, consistent with this piece of wisdom from a former Finance secretary who once told reporters that the light, especially the sun’s, kills bacteria.

It is not too hard to say that the Philippines needs more energy sources than are delivered at present by oil- and coal-fed power plants, as well as by renewable sources as wind and hydro. Current Energy boss Alfonso G. Cusi prefers a menu of options or a basket of alternative power sources to support future growth consistent with the middle-income status aspirations of this country. He has said that because the Philippines has limited its choice of power options, the cost of electricity in the country has grown by 460 percent over a 25-year span versus cost expansion averaging only 46 percent. That means we poor Filipinos pay 10 times more for our electricity than the more prosperous citizens of the industrialized economies because we have not been given the option to build generating capacity that is not only efficient and sustainable but affordable as well.

We as a country need to discuss our power options. Policymakers have made it known they are technology-neutral, one who does not prefer one mode of power capacity over another, be it nuclear, renewable or fossil. The important thing is to bring the cost of power to more affordable levels so that not only the sari-sari store owner can afford it, but that the various industries and their power-hungry factories and enterprises have enough for their requirement. Electricity is expensive in the Philippines and the best proof for that is our lack of industrial heft because running a large enterprise requires lots of power. Until the cost of electricity in the Philippines becomes competitive or affordable, achieving middle-income status would remain a mere aspiration. Worse, the country would remain hostage to a few industrialists who can afford the billions of dollars to put up power-generating capacity at the price they dictate on the rest of us. But if we have other options, we can always tell the industrialists to go shove his offering up his ass.

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