Brownouts: Disaster-in-waiting for PH’s economic recovery

Published June 3, 2021, 12:21 AM

by Manila Bulletin

As Metro Manilans and residents in the NCR-plus bubble settled into another fortnight of general community quarantine (GCQ), they — as well as those in the rest of Luzon from the Ilocos region to Bicolandia — were greeted by rotational brownouts that are expected everyday during the first week of June.

Certainly, that is not good news for optimistic forecasters who have predicted that the country could yet achieve a V-shaped post-COVID rebound, or a quick and sustained recovery after a sharp decline in 2020 and during the first half of 2021.

This week’s intrusion of rotational brownouts in the biggest power grid of Luzon is not only causing major inconvenience to the public. It could spark off billions of economic losses — a menacing scenario the country could ill afford as industries and businesses struggle to reclaim the millions of jobs lost during the pandemic and reopen many shuttered enterprises.

How did this conundrum happen?

Last April, the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) already warned of ‘red alert’ conditions in the Luzon grid because of simultaneous outages of power plants that chopped off roughly 3,000 megawatts of capacity from the system.  This was aggravated by restriction in the gas output of the Malampaya field that has been noted since March this year.

Instead of taking action, the Department of Energy (DOE) resorted to play the blame game against those who raised the alarm bells.  It insisted that it is “on top of the situation” and that its own forecast shows “no red alert” incidents.  Yet, the power plant outages continued to occur.

Since January 2021, generation companies already called the DOE’s attention to the delayed release by the Bureau of Customs of much-needed equipment and spare parts for the repair of their facilities.  Moreover, their foreign consultants for maintenance activities could not fly in because of the government’s Covid-19 restrictions. Those predicaments are still unresolved.

The power industry supply situation remains problematic.  According to Meralco, more than half of the 137 power plants in the Luzon grid are at least 15 years old. There are no new major power plant projects in the ‘committed’ list of the DOE.  The priority installations it has been pushing are all in the renewable energy field.  As the DOE is enforcing a moratorium on additional coal-powered plants, it remains to be seen how it could come up with viable base load capacity additions in the near term.

It has been 20 years after the enactment of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) that restructured the country’s power industry — held out the promise of achieving energy security, reliability and better services for consumers.  The Philippines is back to square one — still grappling with basic supply issues while most other countries are already thriving on energy innovations and fulfilling their aspirations to attain a sustainable environment.

Filipinos certainly deserve better governance from their elected leaders — with or without a pandemic.