Mind da News: Brownout in Mindanao: What Ails?

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, March 12, 2014 — In Mindanao, power supply is still too unstable for comfort since the Mindanao-wide brownout last February 27. The only assurances for return to normalcy are that (1) thorough investigations are being done and (2) reports will be released as soon as the investigations are completed; there have been (3) recommendations and (4) vows to prevent the recurrence of power outages.

What is the situation?

MindaNews reported (March 9, 2014: Still in the dark 10 days after Mindanao-wide blackout) that in Zamboanga City, power outage was from four to five daily, improving from eight to nine hours from the last week of February to March 5; in Kidapawan City, deteriorating to four to five hours  daily from two hours; in Bukidnon, fluctuating from six, four or two and a half hours daily except Saturday; in Davao one-hour in rotation; in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City; none. In the absence of an update, situation in General Santos City is any time, short or long.

Information as to what really had happened and what will happen is not in state of total blackout so it can be said to be just that of “brownout”. While we impatiently wait for the investigation reports, we can assume the situation is not so serious to worry about.

What really happened?

In the DOE (Department of Energy) report, at 5:32 a.m. last February 27, the breaker of Agus 1 hydroelectric plant in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur tripped. Power plants are connected to the transmission network at the switchyard. The breaker is the switch mechanism that trips to disconnect or break the circuit when there is trouble in the line, hence, the term.

For circumstances the DOE report did not reveal, in succession 18 units of Agus hydroelectric plants (1, 2, 7, 4, 5, and 6), two units of Pulangi hydroelectric plant, and three other plants (Mt. Apo Geothermal in North Cotabato, STEAG in Misamis Oriental, and SPCC) also tripped. So the Mindanao transmission system collapsed.

These plants that tripped have a total capacity of 677.2 megawatts. As reported by NGCP (National Power Grid Corporation) that operates the transmission networks in the Philippines, the Mindanao system’s “demand stood at 785 megawatts”; while at the time of the blackout, the “supply was 853 megawatts”, the “93 megawatt reserve” could not compensate for the 677.2 megawatt loss. That explained the Mindanao-wide blackout – a most reasonable explanation.

NGCP reported to DOE that the Mindanao grid had been fully re-energized by 12:18 noon on the same day. To be honest about it, energy was restored but hour-long outages have been recurring quite regularly since then. Does this mean just the regular tripping of the breakers or the depleted capacity of the plants to produce power?

What is being done?

Since February 28, NGCP and NPC (National Power Corporation) have been separately looking into the root cause of the “system-wide shutdown”. As of March 9, “they were still completing their respective investigation,” revealed NDCP spokesperson Atty. Cynthia Perez-Alabanza. In the “thorough” investigation, a tri-agency effort, the NGCP and NPC gather data about “the switchyards and power plants” and reconcile their reports; and Transco (National Transmission Commission) will interpret the results. DOE will release the report — when completed.

DOE Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla stressed that “thorough technical investigation is being undertaken to determine the root cause of the blackout and be able to take immediate actions to prevent similar incident in the future.”

What more can be done?

The MinDA (Mindanao Development Authority) has independently assessed the situation and determined the cause of the February 27 island-wide blackout through MPMC (Mindanao Power Monitoring Committee) “in response to the alleged [power] supply shortfall”.

[NOTE: MPMC, created by Executive Order No. 81 on July 30, 2012 to lead and coordinate the efforts of the national, regional and local governments, and power industry stakeholders to improve the power situation in Mindanao, is chaired by the MinDA chairperson,]

MPMC has recommended “quick measures” to mitigate power supply deficit worsened by the three-month unscheduled shutdown for repair of coal-fired STEAG power plant in Misamis Oriental which supplies 210 megawatts or 26.75 percent of the 785 megawatt demand for Mindanao according to NGCP.  As gleaned from the reports, MindaNews and other national media online, MPMC recommended during its March 7 meeting that:

  1. The ERC (Energy Regulatory Commission) hasten the granting of permits to electric cooperatives for the use of their newly-acquired diesel and modular generator sets under the DOE emergency program.
  2.  Bulk users – factories, malls, offices, etc. – reduce their energy consumption.
  3. Large commercial and industrial establishments use their generators instead of tapping from the local grid with incentives to recover cost. They can help supply the Mindanao grid with their excess power.

As determined by MPMC, there are immediate sources of power to supplement the existing supply in the Mindanao grid while waiting for the completion of the investigation of the root cause of the island-wide blackout last February 27 and the remedies that the DOE will do to increase the power supply and prevent the recurrence of another such blackout.

But, the critical questions:

What’s keeping the ERC from granting the electric cooperatives the permits for the use of their diesel and modular generating sets?

Will the big industrial and commercial establishments and the malls agree to use their generators instead of tapping from the local grid? How will they recover costs as recommended by MPMC?

Will MinDA follow through the materialization of the MPMC recommendations?

How it take NGCP, NPC and Transcom to finish their investigations and reports?

The power users can only hope for the best. If brownouts come – much more if blackouts – they are helpless.  They are helpless, too, if thorough investigations drag on to be forgotten and recommendations and vows to prevent the recurrences of brownouts are only for media headlines. 

[Author’s Note: Mind da News, the alternate of COMMENT, is an opinion on current news. The author may be contacted at [email protected].]