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More growth needs more megawatts

For many Filipinos, there is something visceral about electricity. We know that it is not free, that modern life has grown dependent on it, and that any fluctuations related to its price will affect the way we budget our routine household expenses.

 This is why news of the Energy Regulatory Commission’s version of “dagdag-bawas” will hit a nerve in every consumer. News of a nearly P7-billion refund of over-recoveries by Meralco was quickly negated by the announcement of a consequent rate hike, thanks to an approved increase in Feed-in-Tariff rates.

 Needless to say, the two issues have generated their own share of intrigues and controversies. The refund stems from over-recoveries incurred between 2014 and 2016. Meralco officials explained that “timing issues” gave rise to such over-recoveries, as the rate used to compute for the generation charge in a current billing month is based on the generation cost incurred in the previous one. This thus creates a lag.

 Meanwhile, the increase in FIT rates, ostensibly to help boost the renewable energy sector, represents what some say are “very fast adjustments” from 4.06 centavos/kWh in 2015 to 12.40 in 2016 and eventually 26 centavos in mid-2017. Critics of the initiative have hit what they describe as excessive intervention from the government, not only in price control but also in the grid prioritization of otherwise intermittent and unstable energy sources.

 For many, what this does, effectively, is sacrifice consumer interest and cheaper and stable electricity for corporate interest and “saving the planet,” via guaranteed pricing, a slew of fiscal incentives, and other privileges. Because of this skewed prioritization, some even describe it as anti-consumer.

There are also reports of so-called “Meralco midnight deals” between the ERC and Meralco-affiliated generation companies that allegedly allowed some 3,551 megawatts of negotiated power supply agreements with periods of 20 years to evade a mandated competitive bidding policy. Some lawmakers have hit the delayed implementation of this rule and hinted at a collusion, something that both parties have vehemently denied.

 For its part, the ERC maintained that the extension was not meant to favor any particular utility or generation company. Some industry observers say the move is to “proactively” assure sustainable power supply; distribution utilities and electronic cooperatives from across the country have planned for such by entering into supply contracts with suppliers early on in order to not only  decrease exposure from uncertainties of the wholesale electricity spot market but, more importantly, to guarantee the supply requirements of their customers.

 After all, some say, an initiative that aims to replace bilateral agreements with competitive bidding will not succeed due to a serious lack of power producers that can adequately supply the country’s growing demand for power. In short, the initiative doesn’t address the problem of supply, which the Duterte administration’s build-build- build mantra will also need to confront. That necessary surge will only be possible in a healthy market environment with enough energy players.

 According to some forecasts, the Philippine economy has the capacity for robust long-term economic growth of about 4.5 to 5 percent per year over the 2016 to 2030 time horizon. But this level, pace, and consistency of growth will require an additional 7,000 megawatts of power generation capacity built over the next five years.

 For this to materialize, there needs to be a concrete plan to improve from mere sufficiency to a surplus of energy supply. The Department of Energy’s power development plan aims to make this a reality. Aside from the invitation of foreign investors, local players are also bullishly gearing up for this scenario. This should appease industry, at least for now.

 For consumers, the DOE Task Force to Lower the Cost of Electricity in its final report has already identified the main elements contributing to the cost of power along the chain, from generation, transmission, to distribution. Their recommendations include the rationalization of taxes and the removal of bureaucratic barriers to encourage more investments in power plants.

 Thus, for both industry and consumers, the issue of supply seems to be the epicenter of our persistent power woes and should guide the rethinking of our energy policies.

Topics: Orlando Oxales , Energy Regulatory Commission , electricity , Meralco
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