POSTSCRIPT / July 20, 2014 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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They saw power crisis coming, but didn’t act

BLACKOUT: Things that we taxpayers have to endure because pig heads in government presume to rule other people’s lives despite their incompetence….

Here I am in my parked car, on the fourth day of the Big Blackout, tapping out this Postscript on my mobile phone. My PC and all devices in the house have been rendered useless when typhoon Glenda slammed the nation’s capital Tuesday with 150-kph cyclonic winds. Hence, the need to repair to this car.

To keep the air-con blowing and my phone charging, I have to keep the engine running. Imagine the strain and drain on the motor and my pocket. Try organizing your thoughts into a 1,000-word column and then using the same phone to email it to the office, and you get an idea of how I manage as a one-man operation.

Btw, I worked under the same no-electricity constraints using only my mobile phone when I produced last Thursday’s piece titled “Noy’s other problem: Delayed Bangsamoro”.

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TOLD YOU SO: Now I have found a momentary way out of the dark cave. Under the tag “I told you so”, let me rerun an old Postscript which is still timely and relevant. It came out last Jan. 14, but reads like it will be written tomorrow yet:

“GOV’T FAILURE: Our explanation for the continued power rate upsurge is that the government has failed (1) to build more power plants to keep supply a safe distance ahead of the growing demand, (2) to develop cheaper alternative sources, and (3) to curb the appetite of the power moguls.

“Since five years ago we have been raising the red flag of an impending power crisis marked by rotating blackouts and rising rates, but the Department of Energy has failed to act decisively to stave off the oncoming emergency.

“Why the failure? Either government officials are incompetent and/or lack concern, or they are impotent against the power moguls ruling the industry.

“What can consumers do now? Apparently nothing. Consumers by themselves (since the government does not seem to care) appear to be helpless – probably until their pent-up anger finds violent release.

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“GROWTH NEEDS POWER: The Aquino administration keeps regaling the masses with tales of foreign investors rushing in to put up businesses, thereby opening jobs, banishing hunger and chalking up a magical seven-percent growth rate.

“One reason why we still do not see those reluctant foreign investors is that their businesses require electricity, which in this benighted country is in short supply, very expensive and unpredictable.

“In many assembly lines, a mere power flicker, much more a brownout, means quality control going haywire, costs going up and delivery commitments being missed. That is how crucial cheap and stable electricity is to many investors.

“The yearly increment in power demand is around five percent, but the government targets an economic growth rate of seven percent. There should be a corresponding increase in the power supply to move commerce and industry.

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“THINNING MARGIN: Going by industry statistics, the total energy demand nationwide is around 14,000 megawatts, lumping together household and commercial requirements.

“The total installed capacity is 17,000 megawatts, leaving a theoretical buffer supply of 3,000 mw. The 20-percent allowance is comfortable enough under normal conditions. In most developing countries, an ideal reserve margin is 20 to 30 percent.

“But what actually flows through the lines is much less than the plants’ combined rated capacity. It is foolhardy to operate a generator at full capacity and risk wrecking it. And then, no plant, especially an old one, is 100-percent efficient.

“Years ago, there were so-called Independent Power Producers, who were being paid for their full rated capacity even if they generated less. When their plants faltered, why would they bother to repair them when they got full payment anyway – charged to captive consumers?

* * *

“COLLUSION: And then, all plants have to periodically suspend operations for preventive maintenance. Other plants, however, have the bad habit of just bogging down without prior notice.

“The three plants in Batangas running on natural gas — the 1,200-mw Ilijan combined cycle plant owned by Kepco Philippines Corp. and the 1,000-mw Sta. Rita and the 500-mw San Lorenzo facilities owned by First Gen Corp. of the Lopez group – shifted to expensive liquid fuel last December when their Malampaya source of natural gas was shut down for maintenance.

“Five other plants also stopped operating, coincidentally (?) with the Batangas gas-fueled plants. The rogue plants were never identified despite accusations that they deliberately joined the stoppage for some sinister motive related to rates.

“If past investigations are any indication, the inquiry into the possible collusion among the plant operators who stopped generating electricity coincident to the Malampaya fuel supply stoppage will end up being forgotten like bad debts.

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“LATE AGAIN: Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla has said that one solution to demand catching up on supply and to rates continually rising is to have more power capacity installed by 2017.

“Too late saying that now. The Aquino administration should have started talking and pursuing that formula as soon as it took over in 2010. It normally takes at least three years to build and start operating a regular coal-fired power plant.

“The going rate, according to industry sources, is $1.5 million for every megawatt of a plant’s rated capacity. With that kind of money needed, power operators demand many concessions from government – including sky-high electricity rates.

“What has the DoE done to develop cheaper alternative sources? In the bad old Marcos days, the Ministry of Energy had it all planned out for the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuel to continuously decrease each year.

“But when then President Cory Aquino took over after the 1986 Edsa Revolt, she mothballed the Bataan nuclear power plant because it was initiated by her predecessor (sounds familiar?) – without bothering to replace the foregone capacity.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 20, 2014)

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