Power tripping

Published June 9, 2021, 12:32 AM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay

GOVERNANCE MATTERS

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

For many Filipinos, last week’s series of “rotating brownouts” brought back uncomfortable memories of those hellish power outages of the 1990s. But they also reminded us that our energy sector remains in a deplorable state despite pledges made by every administration that they would work to bring the sector up to par with our more economically-advanced neighbors in the ASEAN region.

As experts have pointed out, these outages occurred during a period of low demand. Many factories remain closed or operating at partial capacity because of the lockdown. There is less demand for power from malls and other similar establishments. One report says power demand during last year’s lockdown dropped to around 30 percent in Luzon. Most estimates say that demand for the first six months of the year are just about the same.

We cannot overstate the importance of reliable and cheap power for consumers, businesses, and the economy in general. But decades of complacency and neglect have allowed the problems to fester.

The problems besetting the sector are not new, and solutions have long been offered. Energy experts, policy makers, and the private sector have proposed opening the sector to more players  by cutting red tape and providing incentives. A shift to non-renewable sources of energy instead of being heavily-dependent on cheap yet environmentally-harmful coal is long overdue, along with building a stronger and more flexible power distribution system. Yet despite the availability of solutions, the power sector has remained static for decades.

These outages come at a most crucial time. If left unattended, it could impact on the mass vaccination program on which government is pinning its hopes of breaking the economy out of its pandemic-induced stupor.

The Department of Health (DOH) has given us their assurance that they have prepared for the brownouts. The efficacy of the vaccines, which needs to be stored in cold storage facilities, are adequately protected, they said. But the DOH is relying on the existence of guidelines from the National Vaccination Operations Center (VOC) issued to all vaccination centers. The guidelines direct the centers to put in place contingency plans in case of brownouts, conduct simulation activities, and have backup power sources available. We have yet to hear from the DOH if the implementing units have complied faithfully with these directives. An audit and a report to the public is in order.

The outages occurred despite the earlier assurance from energy officials of a brownout-free vaccination rollout. The assurance was made earlier this year, alongside a rather bold assertion that there would be no power interruptions during the vaccination period.

Before the outages hit Luzon, a power outage was reported in Makilala, North Cotabato and as a result, some  348 vials of COVID-19 vaccines were left for two days in a freezer without electricity.

Last week, power distributors had to schedule rotating brownouts in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, the same provinces where cases of COVID-19 infections surged in March and where government is vaccinating priority sectors.

The rotating brownouts are not only inconvenient for those of us who have been forced by the lockdown to stay at home. Many employees work from home and their productivity will surely be affected. It will also impact small businesses who are already struggling to survive.

The failure to anticipate and prepare for the brownouts is infuriating, but not surprising. Ever since the pandemic hit, we have witnessed the absence of urgency in the actions of some government agencies. They seem to be content reacting to crisis situations rather than preparing for them. These agencies appear to be unaware that outside their air-conditioned offices, a crisis is choking the economy.

What many found distasteful was the presence of the energy chief in a political meeting in Cebu City while Luzon was experiencing the unprecedented outages. During the said meeting, a resolution was passed urging the President to run for vice president in next year’s election.

One might say it was a meeting about power, but of another kind.

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