You were right Mayor, but you got it wrong
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You were right Mayor, but you got it wrong

Mayor Darlene Antonino-Custodio devoted three pages with 1,143 words of her State of the City Address (SOCA) Friday to the current problematic and pestering power supply situation in the city.

At the very least, she was very candid in admitting that the discomfort brought by the daily rotating brownouts that now last up to six hours “can be disastrous to our local economy and our livelihoods in the long run.”

The mayor should know where she speaks of.  She was a member of the 14th Congress when Mindanao was hit by severe power shortage in the run-up to the 2010 elections.  She was at the Apo View Hotel Grand Ballroom in December 2009 when the House Committee on Energy, then headed by Rep. Mikey Arroyo, held a public hearing to look into the Mindanao power supply problem.

Three years before that, she was at the 7th Mindanao Business Conference at the KCC Convention Center when the red flags were first raised over the then looming power crisis in the island.    

Last year, she and her mother, Mindanao Development Authority chair Lualhati Antonino, were at the Waterfront Hotel in Davao City where President Aquino met power generators, distributors and consumers to again address the ever worsening and continuing power problem in Mindanao.

Her mother was a member of the 11th Congress when the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) of 2001 otherwise known as Republic Act No. 9136.

The city mayor, therefore, had been adequately briefed and had access to information on the real score of the Mindanao power crisis.

So when she admitted that these should be properly addressed, I should have lauded her.

Sadly, though, she fell short in identifying the “root cause of the problem at hand.”  Hence the solutions she is offering are rather cosmetic, if not palliatives.

The problem is not about demand outpacing supply.  It is rather the result and effect of the problem.

The problem is not about Mindanao being isolated from the rest of the Philippines and therefore cannot access excess power supply from Luzon and Visayas.

The problem is not about our growing population and attendant increase in demand for power.

But yes, the problem is caused, in part – and that is to underscore – by the lack of new generating capacities.

But since the mayor exhorted us to be more sober and analytical, perhaps we should also remind her that this is all about government policies, about government neglect and inefficiency.

When EPIRA was passed into law, the government heralded it as our way out of the power crisis cycle after outages hit Luzon in the 1990s.  Mindanao was spared the massive blackouts that hit Luzon because of the adequate supply from the Agus and Pulangi hydroelectric power plants and other thermal generating plants such as the Mt Apo Geothermal Plant and power barges.  

Still, the catchword then was privatization. 

Congress, thus, decided that from thence, government should no longer be involved in generation and transmission.  Under RA 9136, all generating assets of the government were to be privatized within 10 years.  Thus, all power barges moored in Mindanao erstwhile owned by the National Power Corporation (Napocor) were sold to AB Brown and the Aboitiz Group. 

The transmission component of Napocor was also privatized and is now being run by the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines, which incidentally is now owned by the country’s richest family, the Sys of the SM Holdings fame.

Not that we are sorry for Napocor’s trimmed function.  Government-owned corporations are not exactly the model for efficiency under the current system.

Look what Napocor did to the 102-megawatt Iligan Diesel Power Plant, built under the build-operate-transfer scheme during the height of the power crisis during the Ramos government?  The power plant was turned over in 2003 and 2006.   In less than five years, one of the plant’s two diesel engines was no longer operational.  For Napocor’s failure to pay real property tax, the Iligan City the city government seized the plant after a lengthy court battle.  The 2-engine power plant finally ceased operation when the city government took over.  It has since been sold to the Alcantaras, who built it in the 1990s, and is now undergoing rehabilitation.

To her credit, Mayor Antonino-Custodio opposed the privatization of Agus and Pulangi hydroelectric power plant complexes.

But these remaining Napocor assets are straining from neglect too.  From a combined rated capacity of more than 900 MW, these plants are now only producing less than 600 MW.  Most of the Agus power plants, a complex of six run-of-river hydroelectric plants, are at least more than 40 years old and badly need rehabilitation.  The Pulangi River is severely silted the two power plants cannot even produce half of their 220-MW installed capacity.   

I will not blame others for seeing the tree but not the forest.

But because for years, we enjoyed cheap and seemingly bottomless source of energy from hydroelectric plants, we failed to develop other sources of energy in the island.

We have never come up with a sound energy development plan for the growing need of Mindanao.  We have continuously pointed fingers at about every whipping boy we can but failed utterly, to some even conveniently, to properly identify the real root cause of our problem. 

As they say, it is the system, stupid.   

As I have always and repeatedly stated, the EPIRA law needs a major overhaul.

Yes, there is no point blaming the city government over a crisis situation it can only raise its voice in protest.  It is likewise pointless to hit Socoteco II for our malady, for the cooperative itself is also in a quandary.

But the city mayor cannot blame us if we will criticize her for believing herself earlier insinuation that the power crisis in Mindanao is contrived and manipulated to accommodate vested interests. (To this day, her mother still insists it is)

There is no need to manipulate it because Congress already did that for them.