ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Hours after President Aquino assured the nation that measures were in place to ease Mindanao’s power woes, a massive blackout triggered an electrical malfunction at the international airport here Friday night, forcing the cancellation of flights.
Celso Bayabos, Zamboanga City International Airport manager, said they had to stop airport operations when power lines supplying electricity for flight operations got burned during a power shift to generators, following a blackout at 7 p.m. Friday.
Bayabos said affected facilities were runway lights, approach light, transition-approach lights, instrument landing system, and control tower.
“All the wirings from the power control system sparked and burned out during the power transition following the blackout,” Bayabos said.
He said the disruption of airport operations also affected military flights.
Inbound Philippine Airlines flight PR 125 from Manila was cancelled. PAL also announced the suspension of flights to Ozamiz City today. It was not clear if the suspension of the Ozamiz flights was a result of the blackouts. PAL said ticket holders may contact the airline’s reservation office for information and rebooking.
“The control tower can’t contact the pilots and there are no lights in the runway,” Bayabos said.
He said that while the communications system had been restored, runway lights were not yet functioning.
“But we will have a limited operations from sunrise to sunset only,” he said.
The airport official said airline companies have been notified of the problem and have been advised to make the necessary adjustments in schedules. He said he could not tell at the moment when operations would normalize.
In Cagayan de Oro City, National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) spokesperson Cynthia Alabanza said inviting more investors to Mindanao is key to solving the island’s power shortage.
She said investments should not only be in hydroelectric power, Mindanao’s main source of power. “It should have a good mix, not just hydropower plants or power barges,” she told reporters.
Alabanza said NGCP’s forecast of the power situation in Mindanao is “not good” and that it is in a “very dire situation.”
She also said the problem was “not artificial but real,” contrary to allegations by Mindanao Development Authority chairperson Lualhati Antonino that NGCP has created an “artificial shortage.”
In her statement, Antonino contended that NGCP was creating an artificial power shortage in Mindanao because it was interested in the privatization of the Agus-Pulangi power plant, the main power generator in Mindanao.
But Alabanza said the NGCP has been transparent in its operations and has in fact announced its power outlook in the country’s three major daily newspapers and on its official website, and on its Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“What’s happening in Mindanao is a grid-wide problem, not parochial. Its solution must not also be parochial,” Alabanza said.
Alabanza said the power interruptions in some parts of Mindanao were due to insufficient “contracted capacity” of the National Power Corp. (Napocor) and independent providers.
She said Mindanao needs at least 1,500 megawatts daily. At present, Mindanao’s power production is 1,300 MW.
Due to shortage of power, Alabanza said NGCP has no choice but to enforce “load curtailment” to preserve the integrity of its equipment.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño said a government takeover of privatized power barges in Mindanao may be the quickest way to ease the power crisis in the region.
“It appears that there is enough power supply in Mindanao. The problem is that it is too expensive so the power distributors are not buying for fear of going bankrupt,” Casiño said.
He said power rates dramatically increased in Mindanao after the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp. or PSALM privatized the NGCP, which then entered into an Ancillary Services Procurement Agreement (ASPA) with Therma Marin Inc. involving two privatized power barges, Power Barges 117 and 118.
Under the ASPA, Therma Marine would sell additional power to the Mindanao grid at a more expensive rate than when the power barges were still being used as baseload plants. Using the ASPA, the NGCP obtained a provisional authority to enforce new power rates.
“Thus, a logical solution is for the government to take over the power barges of Therma Marine and add it to the grid as cheap base load power instead of expensive ancillary power,” Casiño said.
“Temporarily taking over the power barges will lower prices, allowing power distributors to buy cheaper power and supply it to customers. Based on Article XII Section 17 of the Constitution, the government can temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately owned public utility or business affected with public interest, if there is a national emergency, when the public interest so requires,” he said.
“In the long term, the government should immediately rehabilitate the hydropower plants in Mindanao and tap solar power systems and other renewable energy sources to augment existing supply,” he added.
Casiño is the author of House Bill 5405 or the proposed One Million Solar Roofs Act which provides for incentives and financing facilities to encourage the use of solar energy by ordinary electricity consumers like residences, offices, and small to medium businesses.
“With government harnessing the solar resources of the country and providing for incentives for massive deployment of solar energy systems, the prospects of attaining energy independence from oil companies and significantly lowering electricity prices in the medium-term are realizable. Power crises then like in Mindanao would be a thing of the past,” he said.
Mindanao’s power demand is expected to grow at an annual rate of 4.56 percent from 2011 to 2030. Demand is projected to exceed existing generation capacity by 2014 unless additional power generation capacity is installed, he said.
“With the situation in Mindanao today, drastic situations call for drastic actions,” Casiño said.
‘Artificial’ ever since?
The Mindanao power crisis has always been suspected as artificial and made to persist by individuals and groups with vested political or business interests, even during previous administrations.
In February 2010, Aquino himself, then standard-bearer of the Liberal Party for the presidential elections, said there was no reason to grant then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo emergency powers to deal with the energy problems in Mindanao brought about by the El Niño phenomenon because the “crisis” could be artificial.
Aquino said then that there were several ways to help Mindanao deal with its power problem and granting the President emergency powers should be the last resort.
Aquino told editors, columnists and reporters of The STAR at the time that his camp was verifying reports that the energy crisis was induced and being used to further the interests of some groups in the run-up to the elections.
He said based on reports, Luzon and the Visayas were not yet affected by the blackouts and only Mindanao was.
Aquino said the root of the energy problem must also be looked into and that some energy issues could have been addressed early on.
“We want to know, is it because of mismanagement? Is it a prelude to some monkey business come election day? Therefore if it is artificial, the emergency powers will not have any basis,” Aquino said.
Senators and various sectors also thumbed down any emergency powers for Arroyo at that time.
Now it was the turn of the Aquino administration to be accused of creating an artificial power crisis in Mindanao to favor some investors with strong interests in the privatization of government-run plants in the area.
The President and Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said there was indeed a shortage of power supply in Mindanao that might last until 2013. But they said short-term solutions were already in place.
Power barges have been deployed and distributors have been told to utilize all existing supplies and not consume more than what was contracted.
Reacting to the issue, readers posted on The STAR website their appeals for permanent solutions to the energy problems in Mindanao by developing other sources.
There have been complaints that supply from power barges is too expensive and that those in the business of supplying power generators are likewise taking advantage of the situation.
Napocor and NGCP are facing a class suit to be filed by party-list group Agham, reportedly for their failure to address the power problem.
Agham party-list Rep. Angelo Palmones told reporters in Kidapawan City that Napocor and NGCP should be made to account for neglecting their duties and letting the power shortage worsen.
“It appears they have not been doing their respective duties. They should have had prepared contingencies for this. Sadly they have none,” Palmones said.
“This has badly affected the economy of so many now supposedly booming areas in Mindanao, particularly those in the countryside,” Palmones said.
“I know of thousands of families losing costly appliances destroyed by these sectional rationing of electricity, over and above its bad impact on local industries,” he added.
Residents have also complained about the lack of information on the operational status of a state-run geothermal power plant on Mt. Apo in Barangay Ilomavis, Kidapawan City.
“What is so surprising is that the province is host to two geothermal power plants that supply about 100 megawatts of power to the Mindanao grid,” Palmones said.
Last Friday, Aquino presided over a meeting on the energy situation at Malacañang. Also tackled during the meeting was the threat of blackouts in Metro Manila following the breakdown of a key transformer in Las Piñas.
Aquino said the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) and the NGCP had been tasked to ensure that Metro Manila be spared from power outages after the transformer broke down on the night of March 20.
In a briefing, Aquino said the Luzon grid has excess power supply for Metro Manila’s emergency needs.
Aquino and Almendras also disputed allegations that the power crisis in Mindanao was artificial and intended to benefit some businesses.
Almendras said one of the measures to ease Mindanao’s problem was the deployment of power barges with 120-MW capacity to address the shortage.
The NGCP, since January, has been issuing a red alert status for the Mindanao grid due to current generation deficiencies, ranging from 50 to 300 MW.
Almendras admitted that Mindanao would only have enough capacity by 2014.
“In 2014 to 2016 you have enough committed projects, our shortage is really here in 2012 and 2013,” Almendras said.
The power barges were already in Mindanao but “the users have to order for power to be generated,” Almendras said when asked why power barges were not being utilized yet.
“You will have to share the burden,” Aquino said, meaning power distributors would have to buy expensive power from power barges.
But Almendras said, “We are moving power capacity to Mindanao, we want to make sure we can dispatch them without affecting the price of electricity.”
Almendras said private firms and Napocor would provide the barges. Almendras said a new coal-fired power plant would add 300 MW by 2014 to Mindanao where some areas were experiencing 15-hour blackouts.
He said the “real problem” in Mindanao was that it needed additional generation capacity. “It needs non-hydro generation capacity,” Almendras said.
He said the demand was 1,100 to 1,200 MW and that 700 MW was coming from hydrothermal plants. – With Aurea Calica, Paolo Romero, Rudy Santos, Jigger Jerusalem - By Roel Pareño