Solar power seen as option to address Mindanao shortage

Posted on September 27, 2011

CAGAYAN DE ORO -- Solar power plants can provide the fastest source of power in Mindanao. That is, if plans push through for its generation among the island’s larger distribution utilities.

In a media presentation on Sept. 14, Cecilio U. Sumaoy, senior manager of the Cagayan Electric Power & Light Co. (Cepalco) system operations department, cited the inherent advantages of solar photovoltaic (PV) plants over thermal and other plants of the same capacity.

“The demand for power in Mindanao is constantly increasing, however, no significant additional power-generating capacities are expected within the next two to three years to address this problem,” Mr. Sumaoy said in a position paper.

Considering that 50% of Mindanao’s present power needs are filled by hydropower plants, solar power can immediately address the current capacity shortage and ideally complement the hydropower plants, especially during El Niño episodes, or the dry season.

Despite having an availability factor of only 30%, Mr. Sumaoy said solar power plants are best in addressing daytime peak loads. This would enable hydro plants to store water for release during the nighttime peak hours with oil-fired thermal plants as the last to be dispatched, resulting in much lower power costs to the consumer and other end-users.

Two of the island’s private power utilities are now looking to join forces with the larger rural electric cooperatives to embed solar power plants within their franchise areas and leapfrog the national transmission system.

“Instead of Cepalco doing the bulk of the planned solar PV generation projects, we will bring together around 20 distribution utility companies (the larger electric coops, with Cepalco and Iligan Light) to embed 100 five-megawatt (MW) PV plants in their respective distribution systems,” said David A. Tauli, Cepalco senior vice-president for engineering and spokesperson of the Mindanao Coalition of Power Consumers, in an interview.

“Solar PV plants are the only type of plants that can be brought into operation in less than a year after a decision to go ahead with construction has been made,” he said. Such plants can be constructed within a year from approval by the ERC (Energy Regulatory Commission), he added.

“We are not saying that solar PV alone will solve the problem of power capacity shortage in Mindanao,” Mr. Tauli said. “We are saying that solar PV is the fastest way for bringing in substantial capacity (100 MW or more) to Mindanao, and it will do so with minimal impact on the rates paid by Mindanao power customers compared with diesel power plants.”

Besides the inherently more expensive fuel, diesel or bunker fuel prices also have the additional risk of energy security with prices and availability fluctuating as a result of continued unrest in the Middle East.

Coupled with the hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide emissions inherent in diesel and bunker fuel, the comparative advantage clearly lies in the side of solar energy for Mindanao, Mr. Tauli said.

However, since the present grid code mandates PV power plants of 20 MW or larger be connected to the transmission system, the five MW of smaller size of “embedded” solar plants under the “distributed generation” scheme are not.

Instead of big, base load power plants with inherent financial, social, environmental and other problems, ‘distributed generation’ envisions many small, independent power plants serving the immediate community, which could be a barangay, municipality or a province.

This way, total cost is reduced, social and environmental impact is mitigated mostly due to its smaller scale and the fact that the persons who operate it and benefit from it are both within sight of each other promotes environmental stewardship among residents.

At present, there are 13 large-scale solar projects planned for Mindanao with a total capacity of 260 MW.

These projects are to be located in Cagayan de Oro City, Davao City, Zamboanga City, Laguindingan and Villanueva in Misamis Oriental, San Jose on Dinagat Island, Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Siakol in Zamboanga del Sur, Kalamansig in Sultan Kudarat, and Darong, Hagonoy, and Digos City in Davao del Sur. -- Michael D. Baños