The power problem: a Shell-driven crisis
November 22, 2014
When Malacañang asked Congress for emergency powers to address a power crisis that it expected in the summer months of 2015, the impression given was that the country was facing a massive demand that would outrun available supply. In its request, the administration invoked Article 71 of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), which states that the chief executive, “upon determination of a shortage of supply of electricity, may ask Congress for authority through a joint resolution, to establish additional generating capacity under such terms and conditions as it may approve.”
Not surprisingly, both the public and lawmakers felt that indeed the country would be facing a national emergency come early 2015.
However, from the hearings conducted by the House Committee on Energy on October 19 and November 18, the officials of the Department of Energy (DOE) were forced to admit that: 1) the so-called crisis was based not on projections that the demand for electricity in the period would exceed supply or available capacity but that meeting the peak demand would cut into and bring down the required reserves of electric power that must be maintained; and 2) that what would bring down reserves below the critical level would be the shutdown of the Malampaya natural gas fields for maintenance from mid-March to mid-April 2015.
Malampaya’s gas feeds into into three Luzon power generators–Sta. Rita, San Lorenzo, and Ilijan–so that a shutdown from maintenance would withdraw over 1000 MW of installed capacity.
While the Department of Energy has factored unexpected power outages in its projection of power supply, the key factor behind the expected shortfall is Malampaya’s temporarily going out of commission for maintenance and upgrading by its operator, Shell Inc.
A Shell-driven artificial crisis
Thus, as the House hearings revealed, the so-called crisis was not one of demand exceeding supply but one brought about by the decision of a transnational corporation to conduct its maintenance at the time of the year when demand is greatest, thus creating an artificial deficit not in available generating capacity, as the public was led to believe, but in required regulating reserves. Moreover, the deficit in required reserves would disappear if Shell were to move its maintenance to later in the year, when peak demand would be lower and more capacity would come onstream with new power plants becoming operational.
In response to questions from members of the Committee, DOE personnel said that, in fact, the scheduled maintenance could take place later in the year, as in November or December. Shell, however, wanted to undertake maintenance in March and April, when the seas are reportedly calmer.
This did not strike some members of the Committee as a good excuse, since the last time Shell did maintenance on Malampaya was during the latter part of the year, from November to December 2013. Moreover, for an oil company that is used to doing maintenance and expansion work in the most adverse conditions in the Arctic and the North Sea, having rough seas does not count as an excuse. Pressed, DOE personnel admitted that the executive could in fact tell Shell to conduct its upgrading and maintenance later in the year, and that Shell, in fact, admitted this.
So why could the DOE not press Shell to do its maintenance work on Malampaya at a more suitable time for the country that would eliminate the need for giving the president emergency powers to fill a projected reserves deficit? The question did not receive a satisfactory answer, though DOE Secretary Jericho Petilla did make a contorted effort to explain. Shell’s presence at the hearings could have given lawmakers a chance to come to the root of the problem, but for some reason the request made by the legislators for the DOE to have Shell present at the Nov 18 hearing was not acted upon. They then voted without having heard a word from what one congressman characterized as the invisible but most critical actor in the whole affair.
A triumvirate of foreign players
Shell is not the only transnational giant whose behavior has had a negative bearing on our energy security. Indonesian-owned Meralco will be at the center of the Interruptible Load Program (ILP) that will provide the substitute generating capacity withdrawn from the grid during should the House grant the president emergency powers. Under ILP, enterprises that have their own generating sets will voluntarily withdraw from the grid so as to allow other consumers access to power that would otherwise go to them. Since it distributes some 70 per cent of electricity in Luzon, it is unavoidable that Meralco, one of the most abusive monopolies in the country, will be a key player and thus be one of the recipients of the massive government subsidy for private sector participants that the proposed law would authorize to put the ILP system in place.
To Shell and Meralco as foreign players with a negative impact on our power system, one must add the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), which operates the National Transmission Corporation that monopolizes the transmission of electric power throughout the archipelago. NGCP is a private entity that is controlled by a Chinese state firm, the State Grid Corporation of China. During the hearings, conflict between the DOE and the NGCP broke out in the open when the DOE complained about the lack of accurate data on power capacity from NGCP.
The secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) earlier complained about the very slow transfer of technology from Chinese operators to Filipino technicians in the system operator. Most important is the question: with our country having serious territorial dispute with the People’s Republic of China in the West Philippine Sea, is it acceptable from the perspective of national security that our transmission grid is in the hands of a Chinese state corporation that responds primarily to the interests of the Chinese state?
This possibility might presently be remote, but one cannot discount a scenario wherein on orders from Beijing, NGCP could literally bring the country to its knees owing to its monopoly over power transmission.
The real challenge
The debate over the granting of emergency powers to the president has not only exposed the unhealthy impact of foreign entities on our energy security; it has also revealed the vastly diminished role of the government in managing the national energy system.
Planning has fallen by the wayside, with the government now reliant on individual corporate players’ plans, based on profitability, to introduce new generating capacity to meet rising national demand. Secretary Petilla admitted as much when he said the ability to meet rising demand was dependent on private players’ promises on when their new units would go online. Indeed, the government’s ability to forecast demand is now largely dependent on data provided by private sector players.
What we are experiencing is the fiasco brought about by the indiscriminate grant to the private sector of most of the power to manage and operate the country’s energy system by Epira. Epira is a domestic monument to the illusions of privatization that were shredded by the global economic crisis that began in 2008.
Instead of more efficiency, lower prices, and more competition, Epira has delivered higher prices, oligopoly, and a less efficient system.
Replacing or fundamentally amending the dysfunctional Epira is what Congress should be doing, not addressing an artificial crisis created by a foreign transnational. Unfortunately, the likely result of what is now the inevitable granting of emergency powers to the president will be to delay even more addressing the central challenge to meeting our energy security. I am willing to bet that despite much populist rhetoric from members of Congress, the 16th Congress will not tackle Epira reform.
*Walden Bello represents Akbayan in the House of Representatives, where he is a member of the Committee on Energy.
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