POSTSCRIPT / March 29, 2012 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Is it power crisis or management crisis?

IMPROVISATION: The Chief Executive of this benighted country should drop the old habit of improvising from one crisis to another. Never mind vision, a rare commodity, but whoever rules from Malacañang should show a little foresight and a semblance of planning.

It is annoying to see the Congress now being stampeded into granting President Noynoy Aquino undefined emergency powers to tackle the rotating power blackouts that are literally pushing Mindanao back to the Dark Ages.

That power crisis did not drop from the sky like a meteor. Since last year, we in media have been writing about an impending power crisis down South. We have grown hoarse warning of the consequences of demand for electricity in Mindanao outstripping supply.

The signs were so clear that only the deaf and the blind would have missed them. The figures, charts and scary scenarios on the developing power crisis have been there for Malacañang and the Department of Energy to study and act upon.

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MANAGEMENT FAILURE: But President Aquino and his power clique apparently failed to respond in proper and timely fashion. Either the Big Boss was distracted, did not believe the data, did not know what to do, or did not care.

Whatever the reason for the Mindanao blackouts, the President now looks embarrassed enough to snap from noynoying and do something. He seems poised to improvise again to dispel the gathering darkness.

His operators in the House of Representatives are campaigning that he be delegated ample authority to deal with the crisis.

Their invoking an emergency looks like an oblique way of saying that the problem is not the Executive’s fault, that it developed because he did not have enough power to preempt the looming power shortage.

None of the boys is ready to admit that this is actually a case of lack of planning catching up on us. What plagues the country, not just Mindanao, may not be a power crisis but a leadership or management crisis.

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PLAN OF ACTION: Whatever brought about that dark cloud over Mindanao, if the Gang of 188 in the House sets its mind to blowing it away after being handsomely motivated by Malacañang, granting emergency powers to the President is a cinch.

Like in the railroading of the eight (later collapsed into just three) Articles of Impeachment against the Chief Justice, the emergency powers sought for the President may be readily approved, sight unseen.

But so the grant of powers could be justified, President Aquino should first write down what he intends to do. He should present a Plan of Action to the Congress and the Filipino households huddled in the dark.

It could turn out that his intended action may be feasible even WITHOUT his being clothed with emergency powers. His proposed remedial measures might be doable in the normal course. But that we would know only if the President submits a plan.

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IPP EXPERIENCE: For a more intelligent discussion in and out of the Congress, the proponents should also publish a list of the powers they intend to delegate to the President.

If the menu of powers passes the House, there is always the Senate ready to do a more thorough job of checking if the powers sought are reasonable and responsive to the problem.

We assume our lawmakers have learned from the experience we had when then President Fidel V. Ramos used emergency powers to deal with a similar crisis. A review of what happened will reveal the loopholes that sneaky operators used to make easy multimillions at the expense of consumers.

One feature of the emergency contracts signed during Ramos’ time was for the government to pay in full the Independent Power Producers’ rated plant capacity regardless of whether the electricity was generated and delivered.

This emergency concession to the IPPs have contributed immensely to raising the cost of electricity here, reportedly now the highest or second to the highest in this part of the world.

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SUMMER WOES: The shortage of electricity in Mindanao is aggravated by the onset of summer, when the rivers running the hydroelectric plants thin out. This seasonal problem coincided with the suspension of generation in some plants undergoing maintenance.

But those are factors that occur predictably and with regularity. They should have been considered in planning, if any.

To add to the supply, power barges have been deployed in critical areas. But their operation has been so costly that it does not make sense operating them as permanent generators.

Replacing the barges with base load plants running on coal or diesel could mean more expensive electricity. This could easily raise retail costs by 50 to 80 centavos per kilowatt-hour.

Assuring investors days ago, the President said the country would need 15,500 megawatts by 2030, and that so far more than 7,000 MW worth of service contracts had been approved. But he did not roll out a clear predictable plan or program.

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DARK PLOT: Fears have been expressed, meanwhile, that the Mindanao crisis developed out of deliberate neglect to favor power merchants close to Malacañang.

The idea is reportedly to let the problem fester so as to justify the power lords’ putting up generation plants at substantial concessions to them (it is an emergency, remember?) and then to charge higher rates.

With the public generally uninformed of the economics of the business and with government leaders tending to be accommodating to power merchants, rates could go as high as the consuming public could bear.

A major countervailing force to runaway rates are big foreign investors who can pressure the administration to come up with a well-thought-out plan for making power a less expensive factor of production.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 29, 2012)

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