By Carmencita A. Carillo, Correspondent

Power plant’s troubles boost anti-coal lobby

Posted on March 08, 2016

DAVAO CITY -- The troubled launch of a much-touted new coal-fired power plant in the Davao Region is playing into the hands of anti-coal activists, who with foreign and Church backing oppose the expanded use of the fuel in the Philippine energy mix.

AboitizPower’s Therma South power plant -- BW File Photo
“There seem to be more brownouts now than when we did not have coal before,” said Ann V. Fuertes, executive director of Interface Development Interventions Inc. (IDIS), referring to the new 300-megawatt (MW) plant operated by Therma South, Inc. (TSI), an Aboitiz Power Corp. subsidiary.

IDIS is part of the Philippine Misereor Partnership, Inc. (PMPI), a network of about 250 people’s organizations, nongovernment organizations (NGO), church/faith-based groups and Misereor, the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Germany, based in Aachen.

PMPI held its 5th General Assembly in Tagum City last week, after which the group held a news conference in Davao City.

“The existence of more than three dozen coal-fired power plants all over the country means there will be a big struggle for us in the next few years,” said Roldan R. Gonzales, PMPI chair.

Mr. Gonzales said the group will push to ensure that the Philippines meet its commitment to the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris last year. The Philippine Climate Change Commission committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030.

“But this 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will never be realized if we continue to build coal-fired power plants,” he said.

Several other coal-fired power plants in Mindanao are scheduled to go online starting this year.

On Feb. 22, an environmental NGO led farmers and fisherfolk in picketing the TSI plant, located on the boundary of Davao City and Sta. Cruz in Davao del Sur to call for the facility’s closure.

Panalipdan-Southern Mindanao Region (SMR) spokesperson Kim A. Gargar, also a professor at the University of the Philippines-Mindanao, said in an interview that the people residing near the coal plant want it closed because of its alleged negative effects on the health and livelihood of the surrounding communities.

“We will be calling for the closure of the coal plant. We know that closing it will require lengthy procedures, but this is just the first of our series of actions for the closure,” Mr. Gargar said.

Geonathan T. Barro, executive director of Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura, said the opening of the coal plant does not help mitigate the effects of climate change, particularly on food security.

“We need to be focusing on sustainable climate mitigation measures which do not harm the environment. Rather than relying on unsustainable power sources, we should instead harness our renewable sources of energy which are very abundant in the country,” Mr. Barro said.

Last week, members of Davao City’s business sector also criticized the long rotational brownouts, citing the impact on operations, particularly for the business and manufacturing industries.

The NGOs weighing in against the plant are joining a broad swathe of sectors that claim to be inconvenienced by the plant -- including the business sector and the general public, though TSI claims the problems are not entirely of its own making.

TSI President and Chief Operating Officer Sebastian R. Lacson acknowledged that the plant, inaugurated in January with President Benigno S.C. Aquino III in attendance, “unfortunately went through a shutdown for much-needed repairs” in the past few weeks, but it was back in full operation as of late last week.

“It is unfortunate that despite the return of our power plant, there is still not enough power for Mindanao because of the severe effects of the El Niño on Mindanao’s main source of power -- the Agus-Pulangi hydro power plants -- as well as the inability of some of the power to get into the grid because of transmission constraints,” Mr. Lacson told BusinessWorld via e-mail.

While TSI was bearing the brunt of complaints, STEAG State Power Inc. (SPI), operator of Mindanao’s oldest coal-fired plant, announced the completion of its preventive maintenance activity scheduled over the weekend.

SPI Information Officer Jerome R. Soldevilla said in a phone interview that one of its two 105-MW units is now back in full operation and synchronized with the main grid.

“Will this translate to no power crisis in Mindanao? That is a big question. But certainly this will improve the supply,” Mr. Soldevilla said.

The National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), operator of the country’s power grid, reported in its daily power situation outlook that the Mindanao grid had a reserve of 82 MW as of yesterday morning and 62 MW in the afternoon, a turnaround from the past weeks’ deficits.

As of yesterday, Davao Light and Power Co. and the Cagayan Electric Power and Light Co. (CEPALCO) were maintaining daily power interruption schedules for the rest of the week ranging from one to 2.5 hours.

CEPALCO, which serves parts of Northern Mindanao including the regional center Cagayan de Oro City and the PHIVIDEC Industrial Estate, said in its advisory: “... due to the worsening power supply shortage in Mindanao, further reductions in Cepalco’s hourly power supply allocations are being implemented by PSALM. Hence, CEPALCO is constrained to once again implement load shedding within its service area.”

PSALM, the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp., is a wholly-owned and -controlled government entity that holds ownership over all existing public generation assets, including the 2 hydropower plants, independent power producer contracts, real estate, all other disposable assets, and the transmission business.

Davao Light also cites the unstable power supply in Mindanao caused by the decreasing water elevation of the hydro power plants caused by El Niño and the bombings of the transmission lines.

BusinessWorld sought comment from the NGCP and PSALM on the continued curtailment of allocation to the electricity distribution firms, but no statement was sent as of deadline time.

The Agus 1 and 2 plants, with a combined capacity of 260 MW, remain isolated, according to a March 3 report by the Mindanao Development Authority, due to the bombing of transmission towers in December.

Repair work by the NGCP has yet to proceed amid a land dispute on the property where the towers stand, even though the President has formed a special task force to focus on the problem. -- with Maya M. Padillo