Blackout hits Mindanao

Region expects severe electricity crisis ahead

MILLIONS of people were left without electricity in Mindanao Thursday after a massive power breakdown, officials said, as repair crews worked to determine the cause of the outage.

The power cuts began before dawn and affected heavily populated areas in Mindanao, home to a quarter of the country’s nearly 100 million population.

“Reports indicate that the Mindanao grid experienced a disturbance at 3.53 am... (We are) still determining the cause and extent of the disturbance,” the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) said in a statement.

Mindanao, which relies mostly on hydroelectricity, has been grappling with chronic power shortages for years.

The NGCP said at least 12 of Mindanao’s key cities and provinces – including major trading hubs -- were affected, although limited power was restored in some parts a few hours later.

Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said repair crews were working to trace the cause of the interruption, adding that he was confident power would return to all areas within the day.

“So far, there are no reports of damaged power plants,” Petilla told dzBB radio in Manila. “They are ready to come back online to the grid. We just have to turn them (on) one by one.”

Petilla said there was no reason to suspect sabotage, and that the outage was likely caused by a tripped transmission line. He described the transmission system

in Mindanao as “antiquated” and said there was a need to connect it to the Visayas and Luzon grids.

At 9:30 a.m., NGCP said power had beenr restored to Davao City, General Santos City, Zamboanga City, Pagadian City, Cagayan de Oro City and parts of Misamis Oriental.

By 1:30 p.m., 70 percent of the capacity was back online, Petilla said.

Byt 4:30 p.m., NGCP reported that all its substations were connected to backbone lines and that power service was back to normal.

An electricity shortage last year forced the NGCP to ration off supply in Mindanao, resulting in up to 12 hour daily blackouts that damaged the local economy as factories slowed production.

The power cuts on Thursday hit islanders just as they were getting ready for work.

Petilla said the blackout was not a sign of more outages in summer, when demand is greater.

He also sought to assure foreign investors interested in Mindanao that power would not be a problem, even though there is a projected shortage of about 170 megawatts this summer, which translates to three-hour brownouts.

“Two years ago, we already knew there is a supply deficiency (in Mindanao) and based on our projection... there will only be sufficient supply by 2015,” he said.

But Mindanao lawmakers warned of massive blackouts to come as a result of a severe shortage of supply that will not get better until 2015 or 2016.

Three years after President Benigno Aquino III convened a power summit on the island, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez demanded that the government come clean and present the real power situation in Mindanao.

“Three years ago at the summit, we warned of a power crisis.. and [it] is going to hit us again,” Rodriguez told the Manila Standard.

“The President then told the summit that if Mindanao people wanted electricity, we have to pay a higher price. We are already paying a higher cost but there is just no supply coming. All power plants will be on board by 2015 and 2016 yet,” Rodriguez said.

The House committee on energy, headed by Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, and of which Rodriguez is a member, will hold a public hearing in Cagayan de Oro on Thursday next week to tackle the impending power crisis, Rodriguez said.

Anakpawis Rep. Fernando Hicap said the blackout in major areas in Mindanao highlights the failure of the privatized power industry.

“The government lacks power over the entire power industry. That is the problem. Even the Department of Energy cannot answer what caused the blackout,” Hicap said.

“Despite the high cost of electricity that consumers are paying, we are not assured of a steady, sufficient and reliable power supply. Power consumers do not deserve this kind of disservice,” Hicap said.

The 16-hour blackout hit the provinces and cities of Davao City, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley, North Cotabato, Bukidnon, Maguindanao, Zamboanga City, Butuan City, General Santos City, South Cotabato, Cagayan de Oro City, and Sultan Kudarat last Thursday.

The NGCP has not yet issued an explanation for the massive power outage. But based on its website, as of 6 a.m. Friday, the power capacity of 1,285 megawatts (MW) in Mindanao had reached its peak of 1,283 MW.

“It looked like the NGCP doesn’t have enough power to dispatch when the outage occurred... The lingering problem of power shortage in the Mindanao grid caused the blackout,” Hicap said.

NGCP, which manages the transmission of power supply to distribution utilities in the country, is owned and operated by Henry Sy Jr. of the mall magnate Sy family.

Despite the restoration of power Thursday, Rodriguez said blackouts this year are “inevitable.”

“The rotational 6-8 hour power outages would be inevitable this year because the demand for power has already surpassed the supply and we have yet to hear from the government as to how it plans to remedy the problem,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the House probe in Cagayan de Oro on Thursday was meant to find out from the Department of Energy the agency’s roadmap for power in Mindanao.

The probe, he said, would also review the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA).

“The third agenda of the probe is to tackle the Mindanao lawmakers’ demand to put a stop to the implementation of the newly installed Interim Mindanao Electricity Market that would only aggravate the problem of higher power cost,” Rodriguez said.

“How can the IMEM be effective when there is no supply of power? It has to be put on hold as it would only result in spiking power cost. There can be no power to sell and to be bought if there is no good and steady supply,” Rodriguez pointed out.

“The government has no contingency plans that if one power plant like the Agus1 or Polangui hydrothermal power plant trips, a breakdown in the system follows and a chain reaction occurs just like what happened last Thursday,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also lamented that the Mindanao Power Corp. that was being pushed by the Mindanao lawmakers in the previous Congress never got the backing of Malacanang.

The measure that was signed by the 52-strong Mindanao Legislators’ Committee was archived by the energy panel, then chaired by Batanes Rep. and now House Deputy Speaker Henedina Abad.

“The MPC bill never reached the plenary,” Rodriguez said.

After the House probe on Thursday, Rodriguez said the panel will decide on whether or not another Power Summit is needed.

“Since nothing had happened in the previous power summit, the energy committee will decide if there is still a need for it to make sure that this time, something will have to be done since the government failed and refused to hear us three years ago,” Rodriguez said.

Hicap blamed the power shortages on the government’s lack of control over infrastructure in power generation, transmission and distribution.

“We are experiencing power shortages despite actual rising prices of electricity. Consumers are at the mercy of private power companies,” he said.

He said some 22 million Mindanao residents will have to suffer and continue to experience rotating blackouts until 2015 due to shortage of power capacity.

Hicap reiterated calls to repeal the EPIRA that “caused this burdensome situation of insufficient power supply and high cost of electricity.”

Hicap challenged the government to put up more state-controlled and operated power plants to increase the power capacity in Mindanao.

“Actual experience under EPIRA has taught consumers well that a privatized power industry is not always equal to sufficient and reliable power supply. Privatized power only meant high electricity rates,” Hicap said.

Hicap noted that majority of power capacity in Mindanao is owned and operated by subsidiaries of Aboitiz Power Corp.

The private power company is building a 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant under Therma South Inc. Once fully commissioned, the plant would become the largest base-load coal-fed power plant in Mindanao.

“This Mindanao blackout showed how precarious still is our power situation more than a decade after the government’s power assets were privatized and handed down and sold, some for a song, to a few players. That on top of high power prices, many parts of Mindanao even continue to suffer intermittent brown-outs that sometimes lasted for hours only show how the Electric Power Industry Reform Act also miserably failed us all these years,” Hicap said.

“Worse still, despite these problems and utter failure, the Aquino government still wants to further our sufferings by implementing the IMEM, the same corporate scheme that is one of the main causes of the high power prices in Luzon and the Visayas, the same greedy mechanism used by power players to game the electricity industry, to the utter detriment of the hapless consumers. It is high time now to put an end to this failed experiment and we return the power sector, this very basic public service, back to the effective control of the state,” he said.

“We fear that this island-wide black out will once again be used by the Aquino government to once again project a phantom power crisis and push or fast tract the privatization of the remaining government power assets like the Agus-Pulangi power complex. The Mindanaoans must be watchful of this and oppose this deceptive scheme,” Hicap said.

In a manifesto submitted to the President during the April 2011 Power Summit in Davao City, the Mindanao lawmakers, the businessmen, civil society organizations and residents rejected the privatization of the Agus-Pulangi hydropower plants.

Also on Thursday, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines demanded immediate answers from Petilla and energy players in Mindanao for the massive power outage on the island.

The group said it was unacceptable that hours after the outage started at 3 a.m., nobody could say what caused it. – With Christine F. Herrera, Vito Barcelo, AFP



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