Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Here We Go Again

Every right thinking resident of Mindanao knew when the electric power crisis in the island first made itself felt in 2010 (see blog posts here and here) that it was a serious problem that would take some time, a lot of serious consultation and, of course, costly investments in new power generation and transmission infrastructure before it can be remedied.  After enduring, at that time, rotating brownouts that lasted for as long as 8 hours daily in some areas, the people here were more than willing to bite the bullet and put up with whatever short term and long term measures (including higher electricity bills) the government was cooking up in order to swiftly and permanently solve the then emerging power shortage.

There was talk I remember back then by government energy officials at that time of quickly implementing rehabilitation plans for the aging Agus and Pulangui hydroelectric power plants in Western Mindanao on which the entire island depends for 64 percent of its total energy needs and the fast track programming and construction of coal powered electricity generation plants in key areas all over Mindanao in order to help close the energy supply gap.  President Benigno Aquino III when he first assumed office made assurances to industry and civic leaders in the southern Philippines that the government had the crisis well in hand and was working hard to solve it at the soonest possible time.

Yet more than two years since then, the lights are again going out all over Mindanao and as the whole country enters the hot summer months when electricity needs are often at their yearly peak, Mindanaoans are once again forced to consider living with the depressing inevitability of the fact that they may have again to suffer through the nightmare of the long brownouts and power outages that they thought they have consigned to memory in 2010.

It is clear that except for certain palliative measures such as the injudicious use of standby power barges that provide quick back-up electricity at exorbitant cost to areas suffering from power shortfalls, no long term solutions to the power crisis in Mindanao have been implemented to date. Government energy experts have pegged the entire island's ideal current total generation capacity, including the requisite power reserves, at about 1728 MW but at present the dependable output is only 1616 MW which means a shortfall of at least 112 MW.  This does not even take into consideration the island's rapidly growing energy needs for the near future which has been projected to reach 1823 MW in 2019,

In Lianga, the daily power outages tend to occur in the early evening just as the people here are getting ready for supper.  They can sometimes last for as short as half an hour but can go on for an hour and sometimes two.  At present it is more of a nuisance yet than a really major problem for residential power consumers but if you have an ongoing business concern (and what business no matter how small is not to a large extent not power dependent) it can be a major concern to deal with.

The effects are obviously being more deeply felt in the urbanized areas, the major towns and cities, where economic activity is more vibrant and where the need for stable and reliable electricity supplies  is more critical.  In Butuan City, for example, which is the regional center for Region 13 or the Caraga region (of which Lianga is part of), two-hour "rolling" brownouts can occur twice daily during the mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

Several days ago I was in that city and personally saw how the rotating brownouts have began to negatively impact on the major businesses operating there.  It is tragically the small and medium scale enterprises which form the backbone of the local economy that are suffering the most since they are often the ones that could not afford to absorb the stiff costs of investing in expensive power generating equipment and the fuel needed to operate them.

There is, of course, a dawning realization and grudging acceptance here of the fact that even if the government does manage to finally get its priorities straight and does manage to focus its available resources on finding the quickest yet most universally acceptable solutions to the energy crisis in Mindanao, it will take some time before the existing power supply deficit can be reduced and eventually eliminated.  New coal powered plants such as the one currently being constructed in Sarangani province will come online yet in 2015 and that is even assuming that no major problems related to that specific project will arise and that stiff opposition from clean energy and environmental protection groups opposing reliance on such quick but "unclean" energy solutions can be overcome.

That is why the people of Mindanao wants the government to act now and with dispatch.  There still arguably remains a sizable reservoir of good will and confidence among residents here on the sincerity and capacity of the Aquino administration to find a lasting, "win-win" (pardon the cliche) solution to the current crisis on power here.  But the time for the government to move is now while the problem is still essentially manageable.

It cannot be denied that there is much about President Aquino's personal slogan of following the straight road or the "daang matuwid" in the aspect of governance and public service that all Filipinos who are sick and tired of corrupt, traditional politics can sympathize and empathize with.  But in the case of the people of Mindanao who have to contend with hot, powerless days and swelteringly warm, dark nights lighted only by the dim and flickering lights of candles and kerosene lamps for the foreseeable future, even that rousing call for morality and public accountability in the government service can quickly lose its essential appeal if in the harsh reality of the prevailing gloom and abject darkness that they have to live with on a daily basis for the foreseeable future, they cannot even see where they supposed to be going.


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