Power is as power does

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By Mags Z. Maglana

The Point Being

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


GENERAL Santos, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Cotabato, and more recently Davao – these Mindanao cities are being affected by power outages that go on a daily basis during the hot season for long stretches of time (seven hours in Davao, for instance), sometimes with no clear brownout schedules around which people can organize their activities. And no relief seems to be in sight.

So imagine how irate citizens, businesses, offices and organizations are. Productivity has been severely affected, nothing moves when the power goes out although some try to do their best using manual processes under dim light. The sick, the aged and the young feel the discomfort of sleeping in very hot conditions, with parents and other caregivers frantically fanning for hours to get the barest of air circulating.
The sales of rechargeable lamps and fans have soared, and these products can no longer be readily found in stores these days. Those who can afford it head to the nearest malls and hotels, which have generators, to cool off.

There is a touch of irony here as increased power load from malls and other commercial and industrial establishments has been cited as one of the reasons for the huge demand for electricity.

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And it does not help that the most that can be heard from power companies like the Davao Light and Power Company (DLPC) and government officials are explanations and even finger pointing about the power situation.

Early this month, President Benigno Aquino III blamed electric cooperatives for not investing in generators early enough. In April this year, he faulted for the power crisis Mindanao politicians who had resisted the inclusion of Mindanao in the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001 or EPIRA Law. PNoy argued that Mindanao’s continued reliance on cheap power (hydropower) drove away investors who could have set up other power sources. He claimed that hydropower plants needed upkeep, perhaps conveniently forgetting that the maintenance, improvement, and replacement of these power plants are not the responsibility of local officials but of national agencies. Two years ago during the Mindanao Power Summit, his message to consumers was to pay higher power rates or live with the rotating brownouts. It turned out to be not a choice at all as many consumers in Mindanao experienced both increases in their electricity bills as well as power curtailment.

The power situation in Mindanao is not a huge mystery that still needs to be understood. It is linked to a policy of privatization of power generating plants as part of the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) thrust of this administration, the failure to repair and maintain in good capacity existing power plants such as the AgusPulangi Complex, and also maximize sources like power barges. Some say the repair and maintenance failure is precisely to create conditions that would force privatization, and the recourse to “quick fixes” like coal-fired plants.

To his credit, PNoy said on May 2 that the Philippine government is considering solar energy as an alternative source of power. But if they are only ‘considering’ now, that probably means concrete action will materialize only sometime in the distant future, and not now when people need respite most.

In the words of Dr. Jean Lindo, convenor of the group No to Coal, Mindanao’s power problem is all about, well power. She said “sustainable energy is possible only for those with political will. The ruling oligarchs and corporate owners are the least people you expect political will from.”

Not to be overly judgmental and simplistic but if the President and CEO of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), which is the country’s electric transmission provider, is himself a scion of an oligarch family, known for their malls and retail and hotel development, then one wonders if the interest of ordinary consumers and the sustainability of the environment would ever be the overriding considerations of the energy sector.

In the 90s film Forrest Gump, the lead character was reminded by his mother that "Stupid is as stupid does" which is a variant of the old saying, "Handsome is as handsome does" used by J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and Herman Melville's (Billy Budd). The point of the adage is that true stupidity or handsomeness comes from behavior and not just from having a ‘stupid’ or handsome face.

Freely taking off from and interpreting the above maxims, we citizens have to keep reminding the government that “power is as power does”.

The power problem in Mindanao will not be addressed effectively by consumers paying more for unreliable electricity, spending more time in malls, or buying more rechargeable gadgets. It will be resolved when government uses its power to address the power situation, rather than using policy and public processes to advance private sector profit.
Power is as power does; actions speak volumes and louder than appearances.

Or would it have to take acts of people power to resolve people’s problems about power?

E-mail feedback to magszmaglana@gmail.com

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on May 14, 2014.

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