By Sheldeen Joy Talavera, Reporter

NUEVA ECIJA — First Gen Corp. may need to close its 132-megawatt Pantabangan-Masiway hydroelectric power plant (HEPP) earlier than expected due to the decreasing water levels caused by El Niño, the Lopez-led company said on Tuesday.

“It is earlier because we started the year with low elevation,” said Richard P. Difuntorum, complex head of the Pantabangan-Masiway and Casecnan HEPPs, speaking to reporters in both English and Filipino.

“This year [is] mainly because of El Niño,” he added. The shutdown in plant operations usually starts in the third week of April.

He said the operations will resume once the water elevation goes above the critical level, depending on the amount of rainfall in the Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve.

According to the company, it conducts maintenance activities whenever it implements plant shutdowns.

Data from the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) showed that the water elevation at the Pantabangan Dam is projected to reach 177.80 meters by March 27, indicating that the company needs to suspend operations.

As of Tuesday morning, the water elevation at the Pantabangan Dam is 179.90 meters, lower than the 180.25 meters recorded the previous day.

This is below the 207 meters required for the Pantabangan HEPP to operate at its full capacity.

The complex operated by First Gen has two components: the 100-MW Pantabangan HEPP component commissioned in 1977, and the 12-MW Masiway HEPP portion commissioned in 1981.

Both plants are part of a multipurpose hydro complex that supplies irrigation water for the vast rice fields of Nueva Ecija, approximately 180 kilometers northeast of Metro Manila.

Currently, the Pantabangan HEPP produces 40 MW, which is about 30% of its installed capacity. 

Despite the potential shutdown in power operations, Mr. Difuntorum said that the discharge of water from the Pantabangan Dam for irrigation will continue.

“The NIA can still release since [the facility] has two tunnels: one for power generation and one for irrigation,” he said.

NIA currently has a daily irrigation requirement of 99 cubic meters per second.

Mr. Difuntorum said that there is still enough power supply on the Luzon grid, with many generation companies providing electricity.

“Almost no effect to the grid even if we are out,” he said.

He added that it may not have any impact on electricity prices since the capacity it generates is relatively small compared to the total capacities on the grid.

As of Tuesday, data from the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines showed that the Luzon grid has an available generating capacity of 14,709 MW and a system peak demand of 11,284 MW.

According to the advisory from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration, the El Niño phenomenon across the tropical Pacific Ocean shows “signs of weakening” and is expected to persist until the March-April-May 2024 season.

Meanwhile, First Gen Senior Vice President Dennis P. Gonzales said that the company is looking into setting up solar, wind, and battery energy storage systems alongside its hydropower facilities in Nueva Ecija.

“We’re looking at various renewable technologies including wind, solar, and batteries. So, those are the technologies we’re considering to couple with our projects,” he said in a recent interview.

First Gen is targeting to grow its renewable energy portfolio to up to 13 gigawatts by 2030.