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Consumer groups seek transparency in energy situation

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Fears of a “looming energy crisis in the Philippines” came out as early as January this year, with no less than former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile asking the Duterte administration then to “act fast” to address the situation.

An energy crisis is no less alarming than a water crisis, but not much of an outcry was heard about it compared to the news of a water shortage. Granted, the H2O stories came out when some areas were already feeling the lack of it in their homes. With the power situation, the reactions came more from consumer watch groups asking for transparency from the agencies concerned.

To the average Juan, it was all just gibberish.

Red and yellow alerts, while simple enough to comprehend, don’t mean a thing to someone who is drenched in sweat on warm summer nights because the power had been cut. Even the terms “blackout” and “brownout” are supposed to be different, but who wants to know when one is crying out one or the other when electricity gets cut?

So, while consumer watchdogs investigate what’s what, consumers are likely just blaming the entire government for the inconvenience.

And that is why it is important for the energy sector to clarify two things – how we came to this point, and exactly where all these alerts are headed.

But first things first: “Yellow means there is not enough reserve energy to cover the largest running generating unit. A red alert means there is insufficient power supply in the grid,” explains solaric.com.ph.

Hannah Viola, in an article, explains it thus, “A ‘yellow alert’ is issued by the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) when operating reserves have dropped below the required contingency level, often equivalent to the capacity of the largest running generating unit in the grid, or the 647-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Sual, Pangasinan in the case of Luzon. Meanwhile, a ‘red alert’ status is raised when contingency reserves reach zero, indicating the possibility of power interruptions and outages in the grid.

Questions certainly do arise, like why reserves are insufficient and what the government is doing about it. As the NGCP explained, the reserves dropped because of “the unexpected shutdown and limited generation of some power plants.” If that is so, who is responsible and why wasn’t this managed better? Also, what would this mean for consumers in the short and long term?

On 2 April, Infrawatch Philippines, which describes itself as a “public policy think-tank focusing on major public infrastructure and development projects in the Philippines,” asked government point-blank: “Is the country headed to a power crisis?”

In a statement following the announcement of the NGCP of a second consecutive yellow alert in Luzon, Terry Ridon, Infrawatch PH convenor and former member of the House Energy Committee, said, “A third yellow alert in the span of a single month should serve as warning to government that the Luzon grid clearly has no sufficient operating reserve to get us through the summer months. Without a sufficient operating reserve, we are opening the public to higher power rates through the spot market. This is clearly unacceptable and raises concerns on whether we are headed to a power crisis.”

Fears were not allayed when a red alert was issued on 10 April “brought about by the forced outage of the Sual Plant (647 MW), unplanned outage in other plants (1,702 MW in total) and limited capability of some plants due to de-ration,” Viola wrote.

Clearly, the situation had more to it than the high demand due to the summer season. The problem, it was pointed out, was that the frequency of alerts – more than in previous years – reveals a canker sore in the energy industry, one that the current leadership is working hard to heal.

“Worsening the power supply situation are the numerous unresolved power supply agreements at the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) and the courts. Given the currently very tight supply situation at the moment, this should compel the ERC and the courts to see the urgency of resolving all of these pending applications before them,” Ridon said.

Just like the water situation, he added that delays in approvals from various agencies are causing the operating reserve for the Luzon grid to remain “consistently flat.”

Viola also noted, “The situation has led not only to inconvenience among consumers but also to increased electricity cost and economic loss, not to mention recurring fears of collusion among power producers.”

Once more, the human factor has led to this dilemma, leading the think-tank to recall how firmer management was needed to help the water sector flow smoother. While all this is going on, the Energy department must make it clearer to the public what it is doing in the interim and in the longer term to resolve the power supply situation.

Because a recurring problem, as Viola rightly put it, shows that “there must be something wrong with the way we are dealing with the power situation.”

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