POSTSCRIPT / February 21, 2010 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Major blackout traced to greed over dirty coal

EL NINO: They tell us that the dams are drying up, yet El Nino is not even done with us yet. Looming before us is the specter of parched rice and corn fields, water rationing, rotating blackouts, and possible scattered power failures on Election Day.

By March or April, they continue to tell us, the water level in many major dams in Luzon and Mindanao will be so low that the supply for irrigation and hydropower generation will be severely reduced.

They scare us with maps marked with red swaths of El Nino creeping up on the Philippine area of irresponsibility.

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TRUE DEPTH: Pardon our having to sing some sour notes on a Sunday related to water supply, rice supply, blackouts, and related issues.

First the dams. Instead of just telling us the day’s water ELEVATION, the monitors should give us comparative statistics on the actual VOLUME of water contained in the reservoir and the rate of evaporation and spill.

The water-level reading may be high, but if there is heavy silting, there is actually less water impounded. Even if the scale shows the level to be, say, 200 meters, if the depth at that point is actually just 100 meters, the volume may be just half of what it appears to be.

There should first be a report on where the zero-meter reading is, how deep and widespread is the silting – and what has been done about it.

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RICE ISSUES: Candidates for president are saying that if they win in the May elections, the country will attain self-sufficiency in rice.

Don’t believe them. It is not that difficult to make this agricultural country self-sufficient in rice, but why would these politicians do it and lose the billions made under the table?

Big money is made at every stage of the transaction: from the bidding, the shipping, the diverting to the blackmarket, and the adulteration of the imported variety.

An added reason for importing rice this time is the coming elections. The administration must have enough stock to spread around and keep retail prices manageable.

Actually the claim that imports are needed to stabilize prices is nonsense. With the National Food Authority holding less than 10 percent of the total stock in the market, it will not be able to influence prices whenever the cartel sets its mind to raking in huge profits.

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PUEDE NA?: Some blackouts are traceable to this racket of some high-placed people making dirty millions from the delivery of inferior fuel, such as low-grade coal, that fouls up the power plants and pollute the air.

In a blackout in Metro Manila and nearby provinces last month, a 600-megawatt generator had to be shut down when the 45,000-metric-ton coal delivered turned out to be of such inferior quality that the plant operators had to reject it.

The coal had a low BTU (British thermal unit, which indicates how much heat it emits when it burns). It was too coarse, some of it was as big as stones and small rocks. The engineers had to reject it for being low-grade and unsuitable.

Its disposition was delayed because the supplier was dropping names, including a big shot from the Department of Energy, and insisting that the fuel was “puede na.” The engineers refused it, forcing a plant shutdown for days.

That supply cut, plus other technical problems in the Luzon grid, forced a tripping and rotating blackouts.

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GREED AT DoE: In fairness to the National Power Corp., it no longer holds the contract to supply the coal to the independent power producer. (Note that IPPs are not allowed to buy or source their own fuel.)

Required by law to privatize its assets, the Napocor has sold to a private firm its fuel supply contract, plus the exclusive right to buy the power generated by that fuel.

But is it not immoral, maybe criminal, for somebody from the DoE — which supervises IPP operations pertaining to power — to have pecuniary interest in a fuel-supply contract and forcing a bad-order delivery on an IPP?

Such greed and perfidy over substandard fuel resulted in that costly blackout in the franchise area of the Manila Electric Co.

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IRRIGATION: What topic do you bring up when you find yourself seated beside Dr. Lucio Tan, head of a sprawling group of diversified companies?

Answer: Farming and irrigation! The topic was, I think, timely because of El Nino casting a red shadow over the land.

(The taipan was one of the guests last Tuesday in the advanced birthday mini-party of Star Managing Editor Tony Katigbak at Edsa Sangi-La.)

Unknown to most people, because Tan keeps it low-key, the tycoon has been building and repairing small ponds for irrigation in selected provinces. The idea, he said, is to conserve water, improve yields and upgrade the livelihood of farmers.

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CATCH BASINS: Tan now has seven water-impounding projects in Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, La Union and Cagayan. A frequent visitor to the North, he noted that water quality there has so deteriorated that it is now unsuitable for most plants, particularly tobacco, rice and corn.

He brought in foreign consultants, commissioned soil and water experts, engineers and agriculturists to draw up plans and build/rehabilitate reservoirs. These catch basins store thousands of cubic meters of rainwater that farmers use during the dry months.

A chemical engineer and recognized expert on applied agriculture, Tan personally reviews engineering plans, surprising experts with his deep understanding of soil types, conditions and chemical characteristics that affect water seepage.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 21, 2010)

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