Govt discounts sabotage, but opposition wary
A Luzon-wide blackout Wednesday left millions of households in and around Metro Manila powerless for several hours, triggering concerns that Monday’s automated elections might be compromised by power outages.
The power outage, which occurred around 2 p.m., affected half of Manila Electric Company’s franchise area and deprived it of some 3,700 megawatts of capacity. Those included Metro Manila, Batangas, Cavite, Laguna, Quezon and Bulacan.
Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla immediately discounted sabotage and said the problem started with the tripping of a transmission line.
“There is no reason for us to think this is sabotage,” Petilla said.
National Grid Corporation of the Philippines officials said the blackout started from the Bińan-Calaca 230 kV transmission line, affecting the Calaca coal-fired power line in Batangas and creating a domino effect on five other power plants.
“Anything can cause the tripping of line. Indications that although the line tripped, it was not a transmission-related event that caused it,” National Grid spokesman Cynthia Alabanza said.
Alabanza said other external factors might have caused the tripping and that an investigation was still ongoing.
As of 6:45 pm, National Grid said power had been restored to 77 percent of Luzon and 89 percent of Meralco’s franchise area.
Alabanza said they expected power to be fully restored before midnight Wednesday.
Luzon’s power demand peaked at 8,300 MW Wednesday and the sudden loss of the 3,700 MW, left only 4,600 MW of power capacity from the grid.
Meralco’s load requirement alone accounts for about 7,000 MW out of the 8,300 MW peak demand in Luzon.
“Forty-five percent of Luzon does not have any power...Half of Meralco’s franchise area is affected,” the energy official said.
Energy director Mylene Capongcol said the last power outage of this magnitude occurred in 2000.
“The likelihood of five plants bogging down is extremely unlikely. The lines caused it, not the plants,” Petilla said.
First Gas plant manager Julicer Alvis, said the Sta. Rita and San Lorenzo plants tripped due to an “external grid event.”
Team Energy, operator of the Sual power plant, also said that the tripping of Unit 1 was due to external factors.
“The drop in the grid frequency caused by the trip of the other plants resulted in the automatic trip of Sual unit 1. This is a protective system meant to prevent major damage to our facility,” Team Energy said.
National Grid said early in the day that the blackout was caused by generation deficiency due to unplanned outage of the five power plants.
Petilla assured the public that the Energy Department would make sure that no outages would occur on Election Day.
But he said in a worst case scenario, the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines will not be affected by any outages because they could run on batteries for more than 16 hours.
In the Palace, the power outage struck just as presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte was asked about the rotating blackouts in Mindanao.
“The President was assured that there is adequate power for Election Day and every step is being taken to ensure electricity supply nationwide,” Valte said.
Despite Wednesday’s outage, the President expressed satisfaction over preparations for the May 13 polls, Valte said.
Valte said the President spoke with all the heads of the area commands through a video conference and received a comprehensive briefing from the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces.
The PNP went on full alert his week and will continue to do so until after the elections.
Under a full alert status, all leaves are canceled and all 30,000 PNP personnel should be at their posts.
Military officials said they would also step up their intelligence gathering to thwart any attempt by armed groups to disrupt the elections.
Opposition lawmakers, however, warned that the massive power outage Wednesday could be a dry run for massive cheating to give the ruling Liberal Party a 12-0 sweep in the senatorial races Monday.
The campaign manager of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance, Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco, said the outage was “highly suspicious.”
“This Luzon blackout is a dry run to massive cheating on May 13. Wednesday was not even the hottest day and it was even raining in some parts of Metro Manila,” he said.
Gabriela Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan described the outage as “alarming.”
“Summer is almost over and in fact, it has been raining mostly in the afternoons. And we’ll have brownouts in Luzon? Hocus-PCOS,” Ilagan said.
Kabataan Rep. Raymond Palatino said it was difficult not to speculate that this was part of “some evil machination to rig the poll results next week” since Luzon has the most stable power supply and connectivity in the country.
“Combine the power outage in Luzon and rotating brownout in Mindanao and we have recipe for election failure. PCOS a useless machine without electricity. How cruel, the powerless have literally no power to vote on Election Day,” Palatino said.
ACT Teacher Rep. Antonio Tinio said historically, power outages during Election Day were associated with cheating.
“The widespread brownouts in the days leading up to election day are inevitably fueling fears that there will be massive vote-rigging,” Tinio said.
“Doubts about the integrity of the elections remain due to Comelec’s failure to implement the safeguards provided by law, notably the requirement to make the PCOS source code available for review by interested third parties,” Tinio said.
But Tiangco said the PCOS source code was the least of UNA’s worries.
He said the rotating blackouts in Mindanao may be used as a reason for the poll body to declare that the PCOS machines had conked out considering that the Comelec had admitted that during the mock polls and test runs, some machines had broken down.
“The Comelec may easily declare the PCOS machines to have broken down. Then ballot switching is always possible. You would not be able to see armed men snatching ballots here. The ballots are just there ready for switching,” Tiangco said.
Tiangco said UNA called on the public and the poll watchers to be very vigilant in monitoring any attempt to tamper with the result of the elections on Monday.
“We are raising the alarm bells because these brownouts in Luzon, coupled by rotating brownouts in Mindanao, are highly suspicious and alarming. They needed to do some kind of a dry run a few days before the elections to make the public believe it is normal to have brownouts,” Tiangco said. “But not on Election Day. We won’t accept that.” With Christine F. Herrera and Joyce Pangco Pańares