Bicolanos seek alternative energy sources amid post-typhoon brownouts

Mark Toldo

Posted at Dec 31 2020 07:03 AM

One of the electric poles toppled by Super Typhoon Rolly blocks a road in Nabua, Camarines Sur, Philippines on Nov. 1, 2020. Authorities target to fully restore power in Nabua before Christmas Day. Photo by Clariza Salalima/File

The Bicol region underwent a total power blackout after typhoons Quinta, Ulysses and Super Typhoon Rolly toppled the majority of power lines in the area.

But it was not the case for the Saldo family in Nabua, Camarines Sur who didn’t live in darkness.

“The lights around the house were lit providing good visibility during typhoons. Our food didn’t spoil as the fridge was also powered by our solar photovoltaic (PV) system,” said Capt. Walter Saldo, a master mariner.

The system also powered the family’s communications devices keeping them informed and prepared. Power restoration took about two to eight weeks in the flood-prone Nabua, a first-class
municipality with over 87,000 residents.

As an adaptation measure, Saldo acquired a P265,000-worth hybrid solar PV system in 2019.

RISING DEMAND FOR SOLAR

The Saldos are not the only ones to shift to solar power, as the demand for the energy has grown exponentially in Bicol. A local supplier of solar products, Sun Rays Solutions, recorded that
the company’s daily sales had grown 32 following the recent typhoons.

Owner Engr. Mark Joseph Siapno added that daily product inquiries also increased ten-fold.

“With power interruptions taking frequent and long, the off-grid solar PV is the most in-demand among households and establishments in Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Albay and Masbate,” he said.

An off-grid PV system isn’t connected to the utility grid. The energy harvested through the solar panels is stored in a battery. The user later can use it to power lights and appliances as needed.

Meanwhile, the installation for net-metering solar PV system, or on-grid, have increase ten form from 2.95 megawatts (MW) in 2016 to 29.5 MW this year, according to an analysis by local advocacy group Energy Intel Ph (EIP). EIP founder Engr. Cezar John Estrada said the actual growth could be higher as many installations were unmonitored.

The net-metering system allows homes and establishments to become both solar energy producers and consumers. Under the system, consumers can save money from electric bills while potentially lessening system losses and the need for additional energy capacity from power plants.

NOT AFFORDABLE FOR EVERYONE

Apart from solar PV, many Bicol residents turn to diesel-fueled generator sets (genset). But many poor families still can’t afford it.

“Putting food on the table is our priority here. So most residents make do with candles and flashlights during brownouts,” said Febie Soriao, a resident of fifth-class town Bato in Catanduanes.

Soriao had to go to her neighbor’s house with a fuel genset whenever there was a power interruption or typhoon to nebulize her 10-year-old son. Her son suffers from lissencephaly, a rare brain malformation that requires him to breathe with a nebulizer regularly.

“If he doesn’t get nebulized, his condition may get worse. We went to a public hospital once but their genset only had limited capacity, so we just sought help from fellow villagers since then,” she said.

Gensets have been popular in Bicol. Over 48,000 or 4 percent of Bicol households owned a genset in 2017, according to a survey by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Experts expect the
local genset market to further grow in the coming years.

But this might come with a price for the environment. According to environmental and public health experts, the use of fuel generators can worsen ozone pollution, and trigger asthma attacks and other health problems.

Gerald Pariña, who runs an eatery in Nabua, said he didn’t mind about these potential impacts as long as his genset helped his business operating amid the periodic power interruptions in their town. Like other residents, he can’t afford a solar PV yet.

On worst days, residents of Nabua experience around nine momentary interruptions a day which they likened to ”twinkling Christmas lights.” On average, they get two longer brownouts a
week.

Fed-up residents in Rinconada or the fifth district of Camarines Sur turned to a satirical Facebook page named after the Camarines Sur Electric Cooperative (CASURECO) III to make fun of their persistent power problem. Since 2019, the page gained over 34,000 followers, thrice as much as the distribution utility’s official page.

The CASURECO and the Department of Energy (DOE) both said the “forces of nature” are the culprit for the fluctuating power in these areas. “When rain, wind, tree branches or even bats hit
the power lines, it can cause brownouts.”

Residents claimed the frequent interruptions have damaged their appliances and caused a surge in electric bills.

“Definitely not. If that’s true, we could’ve received many complaints but we didn’t,” said a CASURECO official who refused to be named. The official said their communication lines and consumer desks are open to attend to complaints.

Bicol is the region with the second-highest number of reported interruptions, next to Mimaropa. EIP’s analysis showed each person in Bicol experienced an average of 121 minutes of scheduled interruptions and 440 minutes of post-storm outages in 2019 alone.

RESILIENCY

For electric cooperatives to improve their services, more support is needed. “We neither have a provision for profit nor force majeure. We’re pressured by the government to quickly restore power after a disaster so we loan funds, but how do we pay them?” said a CASURECO official who requested anonymity.
 
The DOE is discussing this matter with electric cooperatives in Bicol, Usec. Felix William Fuentebella said, noting the need to fully implement RA 11039 or the Electric Cooperatives Emergency and Resiliency Fund (ECERF) Act.

The law, enacted last year, aims to support and assist “to the fullest extent” electric cooperatives adversely impacted by calamities.

The country suffered P500 million worth of damages to the utility system following the recent typhoons, according to the National Electrification Administration (NEA).

The DOE has dispatched electric cooperatives and volunteer linemen to fast-track power restoration of at least 90 percent of Bicol before Christmas Day. As of December 23, power was restored to 71 percent of households in Catanduanes, including at least 60 percent of households in Bato.

Soriao, a public school teacher, said a more reliable power system is needed amid the compounded impacts of disasters and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic to
people’s lives.

“Electricity is crucial to education especially distance learning. Without it, our system is disabled,” she said.

Consistent with its Philippine Energy Plan, the DOE has been building disaster-resilient infrastructures across the country, Fuentebella said. He added the DOE encouraged the use of solar or genset as alternative energy sources in households.

To mitigate the impacts of natural hazards, experts suggest a costly solution of building underground distribution lines. But the country’s existing energy system, which is dependent on fuel, may make it difficult to get a return of investment (ROI) for such a project.

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) suggested renewable energy as an alternative. With the availability of renewable energy technology and access to the National
Power Corporation Small Power Utilities Group (NPC SPUG) financing, the country could secure affordability, reliability and resiliency, said IEEFA energy finance analyst Sara Jane Ahmed.
 
In October, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi declared a moratorium on new coal power plants--a policy shift towards the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy technologies.

With this policy, more investments in renewables are expected to enter the local market. However, the government is still locking in a diesel strategy, Ahmed said, citing IEEFA’s recent findings that the NPC SPUG might spend about P13.47 billion in fuel alone next year.

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