FASTLANES: Weighing Mindanao’s power problems: The case for renewable energy by BenCyrus G. Ellorin

Last of 2 parts

Defined, renewable energy is:
“n. any naturally occurring, theoretically inexhaustible source of energy, as biomass, solar, wind, tidal, wave, and hydroelectric power, that is not derived from fossil or nuclear fuel.”

At the height of the power shortage this summer, I struck a conversation with a worried pregnant mother working in one of the coffee / internet shops in Cagayan de Oro’s Divisoria. A mother of two, and seven months pregnant, she was very anxious as her salary, very meager to start with, has been slashed to half for the simple reason that they only operated half-day because of the rotating brownouts.

That to me is the face of the power crises in Mindanao.

The 19th Edition of the Mindanao Business Forum which will convene in Cagayan de Oro on Sept. 18-19 will once again tackle the Mindanao power problem.

And I do agree that what we need now are new power plants. Some maybe surprised by this stand now, knowing that I had lead the community opposition of the last base load power plant that went online in the Mindanao grid, the Mindanao coal-fired power plant of Steag in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental a few years ago.

As memory refresher though, we were not saying then that power plants are not needed. We argued that the coal-fired power plant which they were rushing in order to fill the so called power shortage in 2002-2003 was not necessary and we argued then that there was still a window to tap clean and cheap renewable energy.

Based on 2005-2014 PEP, our energy generation will be negative compared to demand starting in 2012 and would reach a 500-megawatt deficit in 2014.

I reviewed the computations of the DOE and found out that unlike the high nine percent average GDP projection for the medium term planning period of 1995-2004, the current PEP used the average four percent GDP growth projection for the 2005-2014 planning period.

In the upcoming Minbiscon, I am sure that on the options menu to be offered to investors will be at least three coal-fired power plant.

There is no doubt, Mindanao needs new power generation plants. Aside from the fact that energy demand is increasing and no new power plant project was started in at least the last 10 years, our existing workhorses, the Agus and Pulangi hydro electric power complexes, are already aging. (Although the Steag coal plant started full operation in Nov. 2006, the project was started in 2000.)

I am sure spinners of the 200mw Conal coal-fired power plant in Maasim, Sarangani and another 300mw coal-fired plant being planned to be put up in Surigao City by Korean investors will make their pitch in the business conference. And I would not be surprised if the expansion by another 150mw the generation capacity of the 200mw Steag Mindanao coal-fired power plant in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental will also be presented, with Aboitiz Corp. as its would-be investor.

Already, Aboitiz owns 34 percent of the Steag coal plant. Aboitiz company by the way, is in an investment frenzy in the energy sector. They already acquired the power barges in Nasipit, Agusan del Norte and Maco, Compostela Valley with a total capacity of 100mw.

We should take note that the acquisition of the power barges, former baseload power plants of the National Power Corporation (NPC), by the Aboitiz-owned Therma Marine Inc. which now operates as ancillary service providers in cahoots with the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), has been blamed for the almost 100-percent increase of power rates in Mindanao at a time that power supply service was at its worst.

But there should be no mistaking about these things, Mindanao really does not need those expensive and dirty fossil fuel-based power plants. It has vast renewable energy reserves with over a thousand megawatts from hydros, about 400mw from wind and unexplored potential in solar power.

In the pipeline are at least two big hydro power plant projects, the 300mw Pulangi V in the boundary of southern Bukidnon and North Cotabato and the 132mw Bulanog-Batang run-off the river (no dam) power plant in the Cagayan de Oro river. Several smaller hydro plants are being planned in Bukidnon, Compostela Valley and Zamboanga Sibugay.

Lately, non-government organizations (NGOs), among them the Freedom from Debt Coalition, have questioned the claim of power shortage in the island. It would be interesting to browse over the data set they are using to come up with such a claim.

But judging from their arguments, they seem to be echoing the arguments we were using in opposing the Mindanao coal-fired power plant about 10 years ago. Well, I do not want to be presumptuous but they owe it to the public to explain fully how they came up with those conclusions. Otherwise, we can surmise that they are just unnecessarily rabble-rousing.

I understand, they are using the argument of defective energy demand projection to boost opposition to the proposed power plants like the 300mw Pulangi V.

This is dangerous to say the least, as unlike in the 1998-2003 period when we campaigned against the building of the Steag Mindanao coal-fired power plant, we are now having load-shedding, proof of actual power crises.

Even Mayor Romy Tiongco of Damulog, Bukidnon is saying that framed on the greater interest of Mindanao, the Pulangi V project is very necessary. He also believes that the social issues levied against the Pulangi V project can be and should be mitigated. Those who know the mayor, a former priest and still a social activist even as a local politician, will have no doubt that he had thought of his stand quite thoroughly with the interest of the lumads and other communities to be affected in mind.

I do propose however for an inclusive and informed dialogue on the Pulangi V issue. It still remains to be seen if those who are opposing the project which have external support from NGOs like the Legal and Natural Resource Center (LRC) are willing to sit down to a dialogue with other power stakeholders.

I have met with officials of Pulangi V proponents in at least two occasions, during the power consumer forum organized by the Apostolate for Good Governance of the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro sometime last June and in the Alumni Homecoming of the St. John Vianney Seminary and I am of the impression that they are willing to reach out to all power stakeholders in the island.

Early on, I would have to ask the opposition of renewable energy projects like the Pulangi V if they have the same argument against the proposed 200mw coal-fired power plant in Maasim, Sarangani, the 150mw expansion of the Mindanao coal-fired power plants and the one planned in Surigao City?

On the other hand, saying that coal is cheap is false. Like crude oil, it is not insulated from the volatile price behavior of crude oil.

At the height of the crude oil price rise in 2008, reaching up to U$147 per barrel, the price of coal also rose from below U$50 per ton to over U$100 per ton.

This reality should prod our decision makers and power stakeholders to seriously pursue renewable energy development in Mindanao. And for businessmen to realize that investing in renewable energy is good not just for their profit bottomline but also to their social and environmental bottomlines.

Supporting renewable energy serves the long term interest of the consumers and business which will enjoy cheaper energy rates and addresses issues of climate change mitigation.

Renewable energy simply means cleaner, healthier and more productive Mindanao.

(Comments can be sent to [email protected])

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